There was a time when the Census Bureau just released figures on poverty as in, “How much money are people making?” But as conservatives saw that poverty rates remained high, they balked. “What about all those fist fulls of sweaty cash we are giving them?!” they screamed. That is: what about the aid the poor get from the federal government? And so the Census Bureau came out with another measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure or SPM. And it showed something really interesting: since the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, SPM is actually higher than the old way of measuring poverty. Right now the old way indicates that we have 15% poverty and the SPM indicates we have 16% poverty.
Of course, you know how it goes. If poverty were down, they would declare “Mission Accomplished!” and call for eliminating poverty programs. And if poverty were not down, they would declare that the poverty programs don’t work and call for eliminating poverty programs. But if you look at the actual data, you will see something that is really interesting. From 1967, the poverty rate went down — and fast. It went from roughly 26% to less than 18% in that great inflection point year: 1980. Things changed under the great economic stewardship of Ronald Reagan and his war against the “welfare queens” on behalf of the poor beleaguered rich. The poverty rate shot back up to the low 20% level.
Luckily, a man of the people came to town in 1992. And by “man” I mean Bill Clinton. And by “the people” I mean, of course, “the rich.” The bubble-based boom that he was president during allowed more people to get jobs and so the poverty rate again went down. Over the course of six years, it went down from 21% to 15%. But during those years when poverty was being reduced, Clinton kept his word that he did not come to praise the poor but to bury them: he did indeed “end welfare as we know it.” And look how well it worked! Poverty rates were going down! It had absolutely nothing to do with his welfare policies (or any of his other policies, for that matter), but there was a correlation. And who cared?! He would be out of office by the time all the pain came back!
Under Bush the Younger, the poverty rate stayed pretty much where it had been. It went up a percentage point during the his first term in response to the recession. And then it went down a percentage point during his second term during the recovery. But when the crisis came, it went up starkly and continues to stay high. There are two great conservative heroes of the 20th century, although most conservatives aren’t aware of this. The first was Ronald Reagan, but he could only do so much. In much the same way that it was true that only Nixon could go to China, it required New Democrat Bill Clinton to solidify those conservative gains and really stick it to the poor long term.
And where are we today? Well, it depends upon where you are in the pecking order. Michael Hiltzik laid out the situation very well today, Census Data on Poverty Show Results of Economic Policy Gone Wrong:
Of course, one reason that Social Security is such a powerful anti-poverty program is that it is the only one that hasn’t been savaged over the last four decades. But the conservatives would love to savage it! It’s the one remaining poverty plan that they could destroy and create huge numbers of 70-somethings out in the labor market keeping wages down at McDonald’s!
This is one small bit of good news, though, “Also striking is the effect of relieving the poor of the burden of medical expenses.” So Obamacare is likely to work to reduce poverty in the years ahead. Or at least, it will work in those states that have accepted the free money of the Medicaid expansion. But it also shows why Obamacare is such a big target for conservatives: it helps the poor!
I used to be of the opinion that conservatives didn’t hate the poor; they just didn’t care. They loved the rich and wanted to do everything they could to help them. That often involved harming the poor. But harming the poor wasn’t the point. I’ve come to think that I’ve been wrong about that. The truth is that harming the poor is usually bad for the rich — or at least not helpful. The money the poor get will jut get spent and circulate to the rich anyway. So helping the poor really helps the rich. See my article, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid.
So it would seem that harming the poor is an end in and of itself for conservatives. The only doubt I have is the thought that conservatives can’t be that mean and spiteful. But that’s just silly. Conservatives in red states all over the nation are rejecting free money from the federal government that would provide healthcare to the working poor. This is free money that would help everyone in their states. They aren’t taking the money out of pure spite. So of course they would hurt the poor just for the sake of it.