Kausfiles Special

Kuttner’s Poor Statistics: You Make the Call!

A new faux-interactive feature in which kausfiles readers are given the information necessary to render an unbiased judgment of public policy advocates and journalists.

In April, in one of his periodic attacks on the 1996 welfare reform, the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner lashed states for failing to spend enough surplus welfare money–money they have because the welfare rolls are down–on the working poor. He noted that one argument for spending less money on the poor is that there are fewer poor people around. “However,” he argued, “poverty rates have barely budged.” He also asserted, more boldly, that “child poverty rates have scarcely moved.” [Emphasis added.]

Since 1996, the poverty rate has fallen from 13.7 percent to 12.7 percent. But child poverty fell from 20.5 to 18.9 percent, the lowest it’s been since 1980. In the year from 1997 to 1998, the year after welfare reform was passed, the child poverty rate fell by a full percentage point, the largest one-year drop in 22 years. If you look liberal poverty activist Wendell Primus’ more comprehensive statistics, which unlike the official statistics count the food stamps benefits whose decline Kuttner decries, you see a similar one-year drop in the child poverty rate (from 17.6 to 16.5 percent).

And those are only the numbers from 1998. We’ve had a year and a third of brisk economic growth since them.

I called Primus, read him Kuttner’s “child poverty rates have scarcely moved” statement, and asked him if he thought it was right. His answer: “No. Both the official [measure] and poverty including a more expanded definition clearly have come down since the recession, as you’d expect it would.” (Primus does argue that the “poverty gap”–the total dollars it would take to bring every poor person out of poverty–hasn’t fallen much since 1996, because while there are fewer poor people those who are poor are slightly poorer.)

I e-mailed Kuttner about all this. His response: “Thanks for the stats. I guess I don’t find the drop that you cite (accurately) all that impressive. ” He also said rising rents cut into the purchasing power of the poor in ways that aren’t reflected in the official poverty measures.

You, the reader, make the call! When Kuttner said “child poverty rates have scarcely moved,” he was:

  1. close enough!
  2. making the sort of intellectually sloppy, fatuous misstatement characteristic of liberals congenitally unable to admit the welfare reform of 1996 has been working, especially liberals who write Web columns on tight deadlines for the American Prospect, a magazine that, by the way, will never be as influential as it seems to want to be as long as it continues to engage in this sort of thing!