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Sorry, Warren!

Bad news shortage hits paleolibs.


Posted Friday, October 15, 1999

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        You're probably on tenterhooks awaiting the outcome of the annual crunching of the poverty numbers (as previewed in the 9/27 kausfiles). The daily press, as expected, reported that the overall poverty rate for 1998 fell, along with the child poverty rate. In fact, both rates fell to the lowest level in almost two decades.

        But real poverty cognoscenti, especially "advocacy" groups supporting the traditional liberal give-'em-cash agenda, weren't focusing on the overall poverty rate. True, these groups once predicted that the 1996 welfare reform would drive a million children into poverty. But with poverty declining, they have retreated to a more remote statistical battlefield -- asking if the income of very poor single mothers (i.e. those already well under the poverty line) has fallen, once the Census numbers are adjusted to include food stamp benefits, which aren't counted in the official poverty report. Liberal lobbies such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Children's Defense Fund spotted just such a downward trend in the 1997 numbers. Along with speechwriters for more conspicuous liberal poverty crusaders like Bill Bradley (and, presumably, Warren Beatty) they were standing by two weeks ago, ready to blame any continuing downward trend on callous Clintonite centrism, in general, or welfare reform, in particular.

        So what happened? Good news is what happened -- that is, bad news for the left. According to the statistics (which may never have reflected reality) the decline in the income of very poor single moms stopped in 1998. That's according to calculations performed by the Office of Management and Budget and publicized by Republicans on the House Ways & Means Committee. Wendell Primus, of the liberal CBPP, says his own calculations are even a bit more positive: they show an income gain for the bottom 20 percent of single mothers -- roughly those making less than 75 percent of poverty. True, the gain was concentrated in the next-to-last 10 percent, with the bottom 10 percent showing no change. And it still doesn't put incomes for this group of mothers back to where it was in '95. But it does put them ahead of where they were in '93.

        It also probably means the left won't get much traction in the press with the claim -- which the CBPP was pushing as recently as two months ago -- that the poor are getting poorer. Things are just going too damn well. Take a look, for example, at single mothers one quintile up from those on the very bottom. These mothers are still poor; they make from about 75 percent to 112 percent of the poverty line. But from '93 to '98, according to the OMB crunchers, their incomes rose from $12,144 to $14,290 -- an 18 percent increase. Not bad. Better yet, the increase came about because these mothers went out and earned more than they lost in welfare benefits, just as welfare reformers hoped they would.

        Even the little bad news in the Census report was really good news. The official Census report actually showed a small increase in the black single-mother poverty rate last year. But when you look closer, you notice that the actual number of black single-mother families in poverty went down. That smaller number could only constitute a higher percentage of all black single-mother families because the number of all black single parent families went down faster -- while the number of black married couples went up. It's way too early to call this a trend, but if it continues the historic decline of the black family will have been halted.

        The CBPP's head, Robert Greenstein, straining to find a dark cloud, was left to claim in a press release that "For an economy this strong, the poverty rate is still too high." That may be true. It may also be true that without welfare reform the poverty rate would be even higher -- that it was the 1996 law (which Greenstein fought tooth and nail) that put poor single mothers into the workforce where they could then be swept up by the strong economy.

        The CBPP also claims that "the number of full-time year-round workers with incomes below the poverty line rose by 459,000 in 1998." But that Census number does not take into account the Earned Income Tax Credit -- the primary means our society has chosen to boost these workers' incomes. (This is an embarrassing bit of hypocrisy for the CBPP, which makes a point of including non-Census benefits, such as food stamps, when that serves its purposes.) Later this year, the CBPP will fall back on the last resort of desperate antipoverty groups -- a "state-by-state" survey, which will inevitably show that some states are doing a lot worse than others, producing gloomy headlines in hometown papers.

        And the speechwriters for Bradley and Beatty? They have their work cut out for them.

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

Gore's Secret Weapon

posted 08.03.99