Archive for the ‘Hunger’ Category
One of the subthemes of current discussions about how best to reduce our national debt is that we must reign in out-of-control spending on federal safety net programs. The reality is quite different.
The chart below shows spending trends in terms of GDP for the ten major needs-tested benefit programs that make-up our federal social safety net. The programs, in the order listed on the chart, are:
- The refundable portion of the health insurance tax credit enacted in the 2010 health care reform law
- Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Financial assistance for post-secondary students (Pell Grants)
- Compensatory Education Grants to school districts
- Assisted Housing
- The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- The Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Family Support Payments
As Jared Bernstein explains:
for all the popular wisdom that programs to help low-income people are swallowing the economy, the truth is that like so much else that plagues our fiscal future, it’s all about health care spending. The figure shows that as a share of GDP, prior to the Great Recession, non-health care spending was cruising along at around 1.5% for decades. It was Medicaid/CHIP (Medicaid expansion for kids) that did most of the growing.
Regardless, the recent explosion in the ratio of Medicare/CHIP spending to GDP is largely due to the severity of the Great Recession, not the generosity of the programs. The recession increased poverty and thus eligibility for the programs, thereby pushing up the numerator, while simultaneously lowering GDP, the denominator. Moreover, spending on all non-health care safety net programs is on course to dramatically decline as a share of GDP. Even Medicare/Chip spending is projected to stabilize as a share of GDP.
These programs are essential given the poor performance of the economy and in most cases poorly funded. Cutting their budgets will not only deny people access to health care, housing, education, and food, it will also further weaken the economy, in both the short and long run.
Politicians always seem to be talking about the middle class. They need some new focus groups. According to the Pew Research Center, over the past four years the percentage of adult Americans that say they are in the lower class has risen significantly, from a quarter to almost one-third (see chart below).
Pew also found that the demographic profile of the self-defined lower class has also changed. Young people, according to Pew, “are disproportionately swelling the ranks of the self-defined lower classes.” More specifically some 40% of those between 18 to 29 years of age now identify as being in the lower classs compared to only 25% in 2008.
Strikingly the percentage of whites and blacks that see themselves in the lower class is now basically equal. The percentage of whites who consider themselves in the lower class rose from less than a quarter in 2008 to 31% in 2012. This brought them in line with blacks, whose percentage remained at a third. The percentage of Latinos describing themselves as lower class rose to 40%, a ten percentage point increase from 2008.
And not surprisingly, as the chart below shows, many who self-identify as being in the lower class are experiencing great hardships. In fact, one in three faced four or all five of the problem addressed in the survey.
In short, there is a lot of hurting in our economy.
The media has focused on the lack of jobs as a major election issue. But the concern needs to go beyond jobs to the quality of those jobs.
As a report by the National Employment Law Project makes clear, we are experiencing a low wage employment recovery. This trend, the result of an ongoing restructuring of economic activity, has profound consequences for issues of poverty, inequality, and community stability.
The authors of the report examined 366 occupations and divided them into three equally sized groups by wage. The lower-wage group included occupations which paid median hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83. The mid-wage group range was from $13.84 to $21.13. The higher-wage group range was from $21.14 to $54.55.
The figure below shows net employment changes in each of these groups during the recession period (2008Q1 to 2010Q1) and the current recovery (2010Q1 to 2012Q1). Specifically:
- Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
- Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
- Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.
The next figure shows the lower-wage occupations with the fastest growth and their median hourly wages. According to the report, three low-wage industries (food services, retail, and employment services) added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, 43 percent of net employment growth. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections these are precisely the occupations that can be expected to provide the greatest number of new jobs over the next 5-10 years.
As the final figure shows, the decline in mid-wage occupations predates the recession. Since the first quarter of 2001, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and by 6.6 percent in higher-wage occupations. By contrast, employment in mid-wage occupations has fallen by 7.3.
Significantly, as the report also notes, “the wages paid by these occupations has changed. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2012, median real wages for lower-wage and mid-wage occupations declined (by 2.1 and 0.2 percent, respectively), but increased for higher-wage occupations (by 4.1 percent).”
A New York Times article commenting on this report included the following:
This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously by David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.
“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped write the recent study about polarization and the business cycle. “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”
Steady as she goes is just not going to do it and changes in taxes and spending programs, regardless of how significant, cannot compensate for the increasingly negative trends generated by private sector decisions about the organization and location of, as well as compensation for production.
Mainstream economics is largely built on theories that assume that people are best understood as highly competitive and individualistic maximizing agents. In fact, capitalism is said to be the most desirable economic system ever constructed precisely because its laws of motion are in sync with these traits. Capitalism’s desirability is easily called into question, however, if people highly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity. After all, capitalist imperatives tend to work against the development of social conditions and institutions that promote these values.
Many supporters of capitalism draw upon studies of non-human animal behavior to defend their assumptions about human nature. But, as the Ted Talk by Frans de Waal found here (and below) demonstrates, non-human animals also greatly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity.
After watching the video take a few moments to imagine an economic system that builds upon these attractive values, then compare the policies that would be helpful to create it with the policies we currently promote to strengthen our existing economic system. For example, how would this foundational shift influence our thinking about how best to organize production, relate production decisions to social and community needs, structure the ownership of society’s productive assets, and so on.
Greece has been in recession for close to four years and its economy continues its downward slide. Its unemployment stands at 20.9%, youth unemployment at 48%. In the words of the Guardian’s economic editor:
Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.
According to the conventional wisdom, Greece’s current economic problems are the result of years of too much public spending on social programs and too little tax collection. Foreign borrowing enabled the Greek state to finance its ever larger budget deficits and sustain growth. However, this strategy reached its limits in 2008. The global crisis dramatically increased the country’s deficits and foreign lenders grew worried about Greece’s ability to pay its debts. Unable to tap credit markets, the Greek state and economy entered into crisis.
In response to the crisis, European institutions and the IMF have offered the Greek state special loans (so they can pay their debts to foreign banks—mostly German and French). In exchange, the Greek government has agreed to slash its spending. This has meant massive cuts in state employment and social programs and, of course, a worsening of the country’s economic downturn.
Interestingly, while the media has demonized Greek workers for creating the deficits and moralized about their need to readjust to the realities of Greek economic capacities, little attention has been paid to military spending as a cause of the deficits and the unwillingness of European leaders to demand a significant change in Greek defense spending.
Here is what a Guardian reporter has to say:
The current EU-IMF bailout remains conditional on further austerity measures, including reducing pensions, the minimum-wage and civil service jobs. However, one area of the Greek budget doesn’t seem to have received much scrutiny: its huge military spending. . . .
In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession.
So, what is driving this military spending—well just as German and French banks have been among the biggest lenders to the Greek state, German and French arms producers have been among the biggest arms sellers to the Greek state. As the Guardian article explains:
In the five years up to 2010, Greece purchased more of Germany’s arms exports than any other country, buying 15% of its weapons. Over the same period, Greece was the third-largest customer for France’s military exports and its top buyer in Europe. Significantly, when the first bail-out package was being negotiated in 2010, Greece spent 7.1bn euros (£5.9bn) on its military, up from 6.24bn euros in 2007. A total of £1bn was spent on French and German weapons, plunging the country even further into debt in the same year that social spending was cut by 1.8bn euros. It has claimed by some that this was no coincidence, and that the EU bail-out was explicitly tied to burgeoning arms deals.
Greece has finally begun to reduce its military spending, but the cuts in the military budget have been far smaller than those in social programs. In fact, Greece remains in the top spot in the EU for spending on the military as a percentage of GDP and is still one of the world’s biggest weapons importers.
An article in the German press offers the following picture of how military spending is being handled relative to social programs:
In 2010 the military spending budget should have been cut by only 0.2 percent of economic output, or by €457 million. That sounds like a lot, but the same document proposed to cut back on social spending by €1.8 billion. In 2011, according to the EU Commission, Greece was to strive for “cutbacks in defense spending”. The Commission, though, didn’t make it explicit.
The Greek Parliament was quick to exploit this freedom. The 2012 budget proposes cuts to the social budget of another nine percent, or about €2 billion. The contributions to NATO, on the other hand, are expected to rise by 50 percent, to €60 million, and current defense spending by up to €200 million, to €1.3 billion – an increase of 18.2 percent.
And the German Federal Government’s stance? According to a spokesman, responding to an enquiry, the German government supports “the policy of consolidation of the Greek Prime Minister Papademos. The government’s guiding assumption is that the Greek government will, on its own responsibility, contemplate meaningful cuts in military spending.”
On June 17, Greece will hold national parliament elections. As the Washington Post explains:
Let’s recall the background. Greece owes a whole bunch of money it can’t repay. In February, the country received a $140 billion bailout from the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. In exchange, Greece is supposed to make a bunch of sharp spending cuts. Greek voters don’t like this, given that their country’s economy is already in tatters. But if they don’t accept further austerity, they might not get the bailout. . . . So that’s the context for the upcoming Greek parliamentary elections.
The two parties leading in the opinion polls are Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which rejects the austerity agreement and is promoting a restructuring of the Greek economy (of course, more is at issue than just military spending), and Nea Dimokatia (New Democracy), which has basically endorsed the status quo. Here is an article that provides some background on the main parties contesting the upcoming election and here is a statement of Syriza’s program for economic transformation. The statement is well worth reading; it includes policies that would be helpful for people in many countries.
China is widely celebrated as an economic success story. And it is as far as GDP, investment, and export growth is concerned. However, as we know well from our experience in the United States, such economic indicators often reveal little about the reality of people’s lives. In China workers are subject to intense working conditions with a disproportionate share of the benefits of production going to a top few. For example, as Bloomberg News notes:
The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices.
The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.
The income gain by NPC members reflects the imbalances in economic growth in China, where per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and a fraction of the $37,527 in the U.S. The disparity points to the challenges that China’s new generation of leaders, to be named this year, faces in countering a rise in social unrest fueled by illegal land grabs and corruption.
“It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” said Kenneth Liberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washtington’s Brookings Institution. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”
Growing numbers of Chinese workers and farmers have been engaged in workplace and community struggles in opposition to corporate and government policies, especially those designed to intensify the privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of the Chinese economy. The number and determination of participants in these struggles has forced business and government leaders on the defensive.
Recently, the People’s Daily ran an editorial calling for renewed commitment to “reform” in an attempt to shore up support for the government’s neoliberal policies. The editorial appears to have triggered growing discussions and debates on and off the internet among academics and activists about alternatives.
One concrete outcome from these discussions and debates is a 16 point proposal which was developed collectively and recently published on the Red China website; it has gained significant support. The following is an English translation of the proposal by the China Study Club at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Reading it provides a window into political developments in China and also highlights the similarity of struggles in China and the United States.
A SIXTEEN-POINT PROPOSAL ON CHINA’S REFORM
1. That the personal and family wealth of all officials be publicized and their source clarified, and all “naked bureaucrats” be expelled from the Party and the government. (“Naked bureaucrats” refer to those officials whose family lives in developed countries and whose assets have been transferred abroad, leaving nothing but him/herself in China.)
2. That the National Congress concretely exercises its legislative and monitory function, comprehensively review the economic policies implemented by the state council, and defend our national economic security.
3. That the existing pension plans be consolidated and retirees be treated equally regardless of sector and rank.
4. That elementary and secondary education be provided free of charge throughout the country; compensation for rural teachers be substantially raised and educational resources be allocated on equal terms across urban and rural areas; and the state assume the responsibility of raising and educating vagrant youth.
5. That the charges of higher education be lowered, and public higher education gradually become fully public-funded and free of charge.
6. That the proportion of state expenditure on education be increased to and beyond international average level.
7. That the price and charge of basic and critical medicines and medical services be managed by the state in an open and planned manner; the price of all medical services and medicines should be determined and enforced by the state in view of social demand and actual cost of production.
8. That heavy progressive real estate taxes be levied on owners of two or more residential housings, so as to alleviate severe financial inequality and improve housing availability.
9. That a nation-wide anti-corruption online platform be established, where all PRC citizens may file report or grievance on corruption or abuse instances; the state should investigate in openly accountable manner and promptly publicized the result.
10. That the state of national resources and environmental security be comprehensively assessed, exports of rare, strategic minerals be immediately cut down and soon stopped, and reserve of various strategic materials be established.
11. That we pursue a self-reliant approach to economic development; any policy that serves foreign capitalists at the cost of the interest of Chinese working class should be abolished.
12. That labor laws be concretely implemented, sweatshops be thoroughly investigated; enterprises with arrears of wage, illegal use of labor, or detrimental working condition should be closed down if they fail to meet legal requirements even after lawfully limited term for self-correction.
13. That the coal industry be nationalized across the board, all coal mine workers receive the same level of compensation as state-owned enterprise mine workers do, and enjoy paid vacation and state-funded medical service.
14. That the personal and family wealth of managerial personnel in state-owned enterprises be publicized; the compensation of such personnel should be determined by the corresponding level of people’s congress.
15. That all governmental overhead expenses be restricted; purchase of automobile with state funds be restricted; all unnecessary traveling in the name of “research abroad” be suspended.
16. That the losses of public assets during the “reforms” be thoroughly traced, responsible personnel be investigated, and those guilty of stealing public properties be apprehended and openly tried.
A January 22, 2012 New York Times story, The iEconomy: How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, has been getting a lot of coverage. The article makes clear that Apple and other major multinational corporations have moved production to China not only to take advantage of low wages but also to exploit a labor environment that gives them maximum flexibility. The following quote gives a flavor for what attracts Apple to China:
One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
The article highlights these conditions to make the point that manufacturing is not coming back to the United States because these conditions cannot be replicated in the United States.
One aspect not stressed in the article is that many of the labor policies described are actually against the law in China and contrary to Apple’s own claims about its labor standards. See William K. Black’s analysis here.
If you are interested in a more detailed picture of just what goes into making Apple products so profitable you should listen to or read the transcript of a This American Life radio segment which aired in January. The segment is based on a Mike Daisey performance in front of a small audience. Mike is a self proclaimed technology geek who just adores Apple products. At least that was before he visited the Foxconn (Taiwanese multinational corporation owned) factory located in China in which many Apple products are assembled. The program discusses the labor conditions at Foxconn and other similar multinational corporations operating in China.
These multinational corporations have helped make China the world’s top exporter of manufacturers, both overall and of high technology goods more specifically. China’s share of world exports of information and communication technology products (such as computers and office machines; and telecom, audio and video equipment) has grown from 3 percent in 1992 to 24 percent 2006, and its share of electrical goods (such as semiconductors) from 4 percent to 21 percent over the same period. Of course, while these exports are officially recorded as Chinese exports, approximately 60 percent of all Chinese exports and 85 percent of all Chinese high technology exports are produced by foreign companies operating in China.
The issue here isn’t one of China stealing manufacturing jobs from the United States or other developed countries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, total manufacturing employment in China actually fell by over 9 million over the period 1994-2006, from 120.8 million to 111.61 million. Total urban manufacturing employment, which would include most foreign operations, declined sharply from 54.92 million to 33.52 million.
In fact, China’s growth has generated few decent employment opportunities for urban workers, regardless of their employment sector. The International Labor Organization did an extensive study of urban employment over the period 1990 to 2002. Although total urban employment increased slightly, almost all the growth was in irregular employment, meaning casual-wage or self-employment—typically in construction, cleaning and maintenance of premises, retail trade, street vending, repair services, or domestic services. More specifically, while total urban employment over this thirteen-year period grew by 81.7 million, 80 million of that growth was in irregular employment. As a result, irregular workers in China now comprise the largest single urban employment category.
The issue here isn’t even one of China versus the United States. It also isn’t one of dictatorship versus democracy. Rather it is one of capitalism’s logic. Said simply, large multinational corporations and their allies in both the United States and China have successfully created a global system of production and consumption that gives them maximum freedom of operation. It is this logic that keeps pushing more free trade agreements, attempts to create more flexible labor markets, and more attractive conditions for business investment, both here and in China. And it is this logic that needs to be challenged on both sides of the Pacific.
An April 2011 Gallup poll found that 29% of Americans thought that the U.S. economy was in a depression. Another 26% thought it was only a recession. This is scary since according to the National Bureau of Economic Research we have been in an economic expansion since June 2009.
Why would so many Americans feel this way you might ask. Here is one reason. According to recent Census Bureau data, during the recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, inflation-adjusted median household income fell by 3.2%. Between June 2009 and June 2011, a period of economic expansion, inflation-adjusted median household income fell by 6.7%. This decline is illustrated in the New York Times chart below.
. . .
I recently appeared on the Alliance for Democracy’s “Populist Dialogue” TV show to talk about our economic crisis and possible responses to it. You can watch the show here or below.
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The Census Bureau just published new data revealing trends in living standards as of 2010. The trends are troubling to say the least.
Median household income (adjusted for inflation) fell to $49,445 (see below). That means that the median household now earns less than it did a decade ago. This marks the first decade since the Great Depression without an increase in real median income. According to Lawrence Katz, a labor expert and Harvard economist,
“This is truly a lost decade. We think of America as a place where every generation is dong better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”
The percentage of Americans living in poverty hit 15.1 percent, the highest percentage since 1993 (see below). There are now 46.2 million people living below the poverty line, the greatest number ever recorded by the Census Bureau. Child poverty stood at 22 percent.
Things are unlikely to get better this year. State and local governments are slashing employment and programs and the federal government is now moving into cutting mode itself.
This depressing situation is not simply a recession phenomenon. As the New York Times reports, the expansion period of 2001 to 2007 “was the first . . . on record where the level of poverty was deeper, and median income of working-age people was lower, at the end than at the beginning.”
Of course, while the great majority of people are struggling, a small minority have been doing very well. One consequence, as the chart below highlights, is a strong growth in inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient with higher numbers reflecting greater inequality). As I noted in a previous post, over the years 2002 to 2007, the top 1 percent of households captured 58 percent of all the income generated.
So, in brief, there is a small minority that is doing very well and a great majority that is struggling, with a significant number in free fall. Corporations understand what is happening and they are responding. In brief, they are letting go of the middle class as a market and restructuring their offerings to appeal to the top and bottom of the income distribution.
Here is an enlightening five minute discussion of this new business strategy on Daily Ticker video.
The Wall Street Journal, highlighting Procter & Gamble, also reports on this development:
For the first time in 38 years . . . the company launched a new dish soap in the U.S. at a bargain price.
P&G’s roll out of Gain dish soap says a lot about the health of the American middle class: The world’s largest maker of consumer products is now betting that the squeeze on middle America will be long lasting. . . .
P&G isn’t the only company adjusting its business. A wide swath of American companies is convinced that the consumer market is bifurcating into high and low ends and eroding in the middle. They have begun to alter the way they research, develop and market their products. . . .
To monitor the evolving American consumer market, P&G executives study the Gini index, a widely accepted measure of income inequality that ranges from zero, when everyone earns the same amount, to one, when all income goes to only one person. In 2009, the most recent calculation available, the Gini coefficient totaled 0.468, a 20% rise in income disparity over the past 40 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We now have a Gini index similar to the Philippines and Mexico—you’d never have imagined that,” says Phyllis Jackson, P&G’s vice president of consumer market knowledge for North America. “I don’t think we’ve typically thought about America as a country with big income gaps to this extent.”
Such a response may well strengthen corporate bottom lines, at least for a while. Unfortunately for the great majority of us, it may also reinforce existing downward trends in income.
Children are our most important resource. Everyone says it, but we don’t really mean it. Exhibit one: the percentage of children under the age of 18 that live in poverty. In 2007, at the peak of our previous economic expansion, the child poverty rate was 18 percent. In 2009, it hit 20 percent. The figure below provides a look at child poverty rates in each state. New Hampshire has the lowest rate–11 percent. Mississippi has the highest rate–31 percent.
Children under the age of 18 are counted as poor if they live in families with income below U.S. poverty thresholds. There are a range of poverty thresholds which are based on family size and number of children. The thresholds are adjusted yearly using the change in the average annual Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). These poverty thresholds are far from generous. The 2009 poverty threshold for a family of two adults and two children was $21,756. Poverty thresholds for 2010 have not yet been published.
Sadly our poverty rates understate the seriousness of our poverty problem, for children and adults. The history of how we developed and calculate our official poverty thresholds provides perhaps the clearest proof of the inadequacy of current statistics. In broad brush, the Johnson administration, having announced a war on poverty in January 1964, needed a measure of poverty. In response, its newly created Office of Economic Opportunity [OEO] introduced the first poverty thresholds in 1965.
These thresholds were largely based on previous work of the Department of Agriculture [DOA]. The DOA had developed four low-cost weekly food plans, the least generous called the “economy plan.” That plan was designed for “temporary or emergency use when funds are low.” It had no allowance for eating outside the home. The Department had also determined, based on surveys, that families of three or more persons spent approximately one-third of their after-tax income on food. The OEO took the cost of the economy food plan for families of different sizes and multiplied the total by 52 to get a series of yearly food budgets. Then, it multiplied those food budgets by three to generate a series of poverty thresholds.
From 1966 to 1969, these poverty thresholds were adjusted annually by the yearly change in the cost of the food items contained in the economy food plan. After 1969 the poverty thresholds were simply adjusted by the rise in the consumer price index.
This methodology has produced a poverty standard that is deficient in several ways. First, it does not acknowledge that our knowledge of nutrition has significantly changed since 1965. Second, it does not acknowledge that most families now spend approximately one-fifth of their after-tax income on food, not one-third. That correction alone would mean that the food budget should be multiplied by 5 rather than 3, thereby producing higher thresholds and poverty rates. Third, it does not acknowledge that poverty is best thought of as a relative condition.
The National Academy of Sciences Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance has played a leading role in developing one of the most promising alternative poverty measures. A 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics Working Paper refine and extend the Panel’s experimental methodology and use it to calculate poverty thresholds and estimates for the period 1996 to 2005.
The authors of the Working Paper start with a reference family, two adults and two children, the most common family unit in the United States. Then, using Consumer Expenditure Surveys, they calculate the dollar amount of spending on food, clothing, shelter, utilities and medical care by all reference families in a given year.
The poverty threshold for the reference family is set, following the work of the Panel, at the midpoint between the 30th and 35th percentile of the spending distribution for all families with two adults and two children. Small multipliers are then used to add spending estimates for other needs, such as transportation and personal care, slightly raising the poverty threshold. This threshold is adjusted to generate thresholds for families of other sizes and compositions.
Poverty rates are determined by comparing family resources with these poverty thresholds. In contrast to current poverty calculations which rely on pre-tax incomes (even though official thresholds are based on the share of after-tax income spent on food), the authors of the Working Paper define family resources as the sum of after-tax money income from all sources plus the value of near-money benefits (such as food stamps) that help the family meet its spending needs.
The chart below shows national poverty rates for the years 1996 to 2005. We see that the rates produced by this experimental methodology are significantly higher than the official rates. Strikingly, while the official 2005 poverty rate is lower than the 1996 official poverty rate, the 2005 experimental poverty rate is the highest in the period.
Returning to the issue of child poverty, the table below highlights the difference between the two measures for specific demographic groups over the same period. Notice that the child poverty rate calculated using the experimental measure is always higher than the official rate. As previously stated, the official 2009 child poverty rate is 20 percent. The experimental rate would no doubt be several percentage points higher, closing in on 25 percent.
What can one say about a situation where between one-fifth and one-fourth of all children in the United States live in poverty? And all signs point to a higher rate for 2010. Words like outrageous, unacceptable, an indicator of a flawed economic system all come to mind. What also comes to mind is the fact these poverty statistics rarely get the attention they deserve. So does the question of why that is so.