Census data shows 48 percent of Americans are either “poor” or “near poor,” the Associated Press reported yesterday, perplexing everyday people and delighting the nation’s harshest critics here and abroad.
The AP story implied this staggering news was the result of deteriorating economic conditions. In fact, though, the number of “near poor” Americans increased dramatically because the Obama administration dramatically (but quietly) changed the official definition of poverty.
Traditionally, a U.S. household was considered “low income” or “near poor” if it had income below 200 percent of the official poverty income thresholds. The Obama administration has raised those income thresholds and thereby transformed the way the government measures poverty and near poverty.
Under President Obama’s new definitions, a family of four in Oakland is “near poor” if their annual pre-tax income is less than $89,700 plus medical insurance. In metropolitan Washington, D.C., the near-poverty line became $80,500. In New York, it’s now $78,500; in Boston, $68,900; and Chicago, $68,600.
One result: The income level for “near poverty” is now very close to the median household income in most communities. (Median income means half the households have more income and half have less.)
So it should be no surprise that, with these new standards, the Census Bureau “discovered” that almost half the U.S. population lives in or “near” poverty. The system is designed to produce that result.
The Obama administration’s new poverty measures are high-octane political propaganda. By dramatically expanding the definition of poverty (and near poverty), the administration furthers the president’s agenda to “spread the wealth.” By artificially inflating the number of Americans counted as poor or near poor, the administration expects to generate political pressure to expand the welfare state and raise taxes
Obama already has permanently increased welfare spending by nearly a third. The government will spend over $900 billion this year on means-tested welfare programs to provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income Americans. That total does not include Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment insurance.
Under the government’s old definition of poverty, this $900 billion–plus comes to around $9,000 for each lower-income American. That’s apparently not nearly enough for Obama — hence a new measure of “poverty” calculated to convince voters that they need to support more welfare spending.
— Robert Rector is a senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation. His recent papers include “Understanding Poverty in the United States.”