In a recent column to bolster his claim that means-tested programs have only addressed "the symptoms of poverty, not causes", Nick Kristof notes that "the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration."
Kristof then goes on to locate the causes of poverty, not in our failure to ensure that wages kept pace with productivity growth over the last several decades, but instead in "a difference in parenting strategies." According to Kristof, the real problem isn't what poverty-expert Sheldon Danziger has described as "the turn to an unequal economy after the 1970s," it's that "working-class families often take a more hands-off attitude to child-raising."
Conservatives used to think Murphy Brown's childrearing was the problem; Kristof now tells us it's really Roseanne and Dan's parenting that we need to be worried about.
In a response, CBPP's Bob Greenstein mostly steers clear of parenting practices, and instead takes on Kristof's disparaging of means-tested programs. Greenstein notes that the official poverty measure doesn't count the Earned Income Tax Credit and in-kind nutritional assistance. Although he doesn't say it directly, his implication seems to be that the "real" poverty rate today is much lower than the official Census number of 15 percent.
It's certainly right to say that millions of children are better off today because of Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, nutrition assistance, and various other means-tested components of our welfare state. These investments address both the symptoms and the causes of poverty. They also help stabilize the economy during downturns, a function that has broad economic and social benefits. We're a richer nation today as a consequence.
Still, we have to acknowledge that the poverty rate today isn't lower than it was in the late 1960s. Yes, the official poverty rate (15.1 percent in 2011) doesn't count important benefits, which biases the rate upward. But the official measure also relies on an archaic poverty line that hasn't been updated (except for inflation) for four decades and doesn't take into account the way that broad public consensus about basic needs has evolved since then. This biases the rate downward. At best, the differences cancel each other out.
The Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure includes benefits not counted in the official poverty measure and also updates the poverty line (although too conservatively in my view, especially when it comes to children's basic needs). According to this measure, 16.1 percent of Americans had below-poverty incomes in 2011, a number not that different than the poverty rate in the late 1960s.
On this point, Greenstein's response veers a bit off-key when he asserts that "in today's global economy, wages for lower-paying jobs won't likely regain their levels of several decades ago (in inflation-adjusted terms)." Who says? Robert Rubin? Alan Greenspan? Ben Bernanke? Other very serious people who have contributed to the problem through their incredible economic mismanagement and wrong-headed predictions?
In fact, there's nothing inevitable about wage trends for low- and middle-wage workers, as the responses of Diana Pearce and Don Mathis to the Kristof-Greensteen dialogue make clear. Because of powerful elite interests opposed to a fairer deal for low- and middle-wage workers, the politics aren't easy, just like the politics of the Civil Rights movement or the New Deal weren't easy. But for those of us who care about poverty, there is no alternative: If we don't put policies in place that give low- and middle-income people a much fairer deal in the labor market, poverty will continue to remain high.