How Poor Is ‘Poor’?
What does it mean to say that 46.2 million Americans live in “poverty”?


Robert Rector

If the government’s “poverty” figures are reinterpreted as “self-sufficiency” numbers, they’re actually quite informative. The fact that the Census Bureau ignores most welfare assistance is irrelevant, because welfare is specifically excluded from the concept of self-sufficiency.

Although it is misleading to say that 46.2 million Americans were “poor” in 2011, it is accurate to say that 46.2 million lacked self-sufficiency. They were unable to maintain an income above poverty without means-tested welfare aid.

Paradoxically, promoting “self-sufficiency” was the original goal of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Johnson declared that his aim was to eliminate “the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” He sought to increase the incomes of the poor by increasing families’ capacity for self-support, not by increasing dependence on welfare. LBJ actually promised to reduce, not increase, welfare dependence. The goal of the War on Poverty, he stated, would be “making taxpayers out of tax-eaters.”

Clearly, things haven’t worked out as LBJ planned. The U.S. has spent over $19 trillion on means-tested welfare since he launched the War on Poverty. But Americans are no more capable today of supporting themselves through work than they were in the mid-1960s.

The short-term rise in families lacking self-sufficiency is owing to the failure of the Obama administration to restore jobs in the economy. But self-sufficiency had not substantially improved even before the recession. The long-term failure to boost self-sufficiency (and decrease official “poverty”) has been caused largely by the welfare state itself, which has eroded the work ethic and severely undermined marriage in low-income communities.

When the War on Poverty began, 7 percent of American children were born outside marriage; today the number is 42 percent. Single-parent families are four times more likely to be “poor” or non-self-sufficient than are families headed by a married couple with the same level of education.

What can be done to increase self-sufficiency and reduce official “poverty”? In the short term, the number of jobs should be increased by easing the threat of excessive taxes and greater regulation on employers and investors who create jobs. In the long term, welfare must be transformed from a system that discourages work and marriage into a system that promotes both. All able-bodied adult recipients of means-tested welfare aid should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. And marriage must be incrementally rebuilt in communities where it has all but vanished.

These steps are best for the welfare recipients, for taxpayers, and for society as a whole. They are necessary if we are ever to move toward Johnson’s original goal of self-sufficiency for all Americans.

— Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of the new paper “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”