Antipoverty Programs Work- Just Not Well Enough

Yesterday (11/14) the US Census Bureau released a report that aims to show, among other things, the effects of regional factors on poverty levels as well the impact that government aid has on specific populations. The report, dubbed the “Supplemental Measure on Poverty Statistics”, found that when accounting for things such as taxes, housing, transportation, and healthcare costs, as well as access to government assistance, the national poverty rate is actually 16.1%, rather than the 15% calculated in the Bureau’s conventional poverty report. One key finding in the report: state and federal anti-poverty programs significantly reduce poverty among some populations. From Ben Casselman’s report in The Wall Street Journal:

Under the official definition … there are 16.5 million children under 18 living in poverty, for a poverty rate of 22.3%. But because many government antipoverty programs target children, the alternative definition yields a lower rate of 18.1%, a difference of more than 3 million people.

This would indicate then, that programs like SNAP (food stamps), CHIP (children’s health insurance), and TANF (welfare) are keeping over 3 million children out of poverty. Unfortunately, the new metrics also show that 3.5 million more people are living in poverty when compared with the conventional statistics. Much of this difference can be accounted for by looking at where people live. According to Casselman’s reporting, Mississippi (which has the highest conventional poverty rate) shows a substantial reduction in poverty under the new measurements, while New York’s is noticeably higher. This would seem to indicate that differences in housing costs are a big factor in the disparities in state by state poverty rates.

While the new report makes plain that anti-poverty programs are making a drastic difference in keeping the nation’s most vulnerable out of poverty, it also suggests that aid can be targeted and delivered more efficiently. States with higher costs of living and more depressed job markets should receive a larger share of federal aid, while states with lower incomes but also lower costs of living should get less.

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