Why The Safety Net Matters

Poverty Rates

A new study (pdf) assesses the effects of anti-poverty programs over the past 45 years. Emily Badger comments:

If you’re a working mom of two making $18,000 a year, just below the poverty line, the government doesn’t consider in its own poverty rate whether the food stamps and rental subsidies it gives you effectively help pull your family above that threshold. To address this, the Census Bureau began to roll out in 2011 a supplemental poverty measure, a revised tool that tries to take these non-cash benefits into account (alongside other essential family costs). The supplemental measure, though, is primarily a resource for the curious. It’s not used in official poverty statistics or policy-making.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Population Research Center, however, have used it to make a powerful point about the real impact of all these government programs. Christopher Wimer and colleagues took the new supplemental threshold and carried it back in time, adjusting the 2012 supplemental poverty line for inflation … Take away those programs, and the poverty rate would have actually inched up from 1967 to 2011.

Brad Plumer sees the above chart in the context of the Great Recession:

There are a couple of ways to read this chart. One, if you don’t include safety-net programs, then poverty has actually risen from 26 percent in 1967 to 29 percent in 2012. There are more people dependent on safety-net programs to stay out of poverty than ever before. Or here’s another view: The green line shows that poverty rates would have soared during the most recent recession if there were no safety-net programs in place. But as the blue line shows, the poverty rate actually stayed fairly constant. The expansion of food stamps, unemployment insurance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit blunted a lot of misery.

Vauhini Vara adds:

Some politicians on the left might resist a measure that shows that poverty is much lower than it used to be: couldn’t this minimize the problem and make it harder to gain support for new anti-poverty programs? But it also may show that some anti-poverty programs of the past several decades appear to have achieved what they were meant for—which, one expects, should come as good news to everyone.