The Plank

Poverty? Not A Problem

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So the reporters at McClatchy snapped on the rubber gloves, plunged into the dark cavities of the Census Bureau, and pulled out a stunning statistic: "Nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty"--a category that includes individuals making less than $5,080 a year, and families of four bringing in less than $9,903 a year. That number, by the way, has been growing rapidly since 2000. The article itself hits the usual refrains--noting that the United States spends less on anti-poverty programs than any other industrialized country outside of Russia and Mexico--but I found this bit near the end quite striking:

The Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation shows that, in a given month, only 10 percent of severely poor Americans received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2003--the latest year available--and that only 36 percent received food stamps.Many could have exhausted their eligibility for welfare or decided that the new program requirements were too onerous. But the low participation rates are troubling because the worst byproducts of poverty, such as higher crime and violence rates and poor health, nutrition and educational outcomes, are worse for those in deep poverty.

I doubt those are the only reasons for the low participation rates. As David K. Shipler reported in The Working Poor, welfare agencies spend a great deal of effort dissuading people from applying for assistance. They'll ask single mothers who come in a few perfunctory questions and then--illegally--refuse to give them an application. Or they'll design "Kafkaesque labyrinths of paperwork" that turn any attempt to obtain benefits into a full-time job. Anything to ease pressure on state budgets. Luckily, the Bush administration has taken note of all this and proposed to... eliminate the Census's Survey of Income and Program Participation, so that nosy researchers can no longer figure out how many eligible families are receiving assistance. Problem solved!

--Bradford Plumer

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