Discovering Poverty (Again)

Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, Sept. 21

We Americans are now supposedly discovering poverty for at least the fourth time since World War II. The first occurred in 1962, when Michael Harrington’s classic “The Other America” appeared. To a nation generally dazzled by its newfound suburban prosperity, Harrington described the grim realities of West Virginia shanties and inner-city slums. Then there was Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and later what was often described, rightly or wrongly, as Ronald Reagan’s war against the poor. Now Hurricane Katrina has purportedly raised America’s consciousness once again.

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One myth is that we haven’t made any progress. Superficially, this seems believable. The government’s poverty rate, released just as Katrina struck, was 12.7 percent in 2004. That’s the proportion of people living beneath the official poverty line, about $19,300 for a family of four. The current poverty rate is up from its recent low (11.3 percent in 2000) and similar to many earlier years (13 percent in 1980 and 12.6 percent in 1970).

But the overall poverty rate is misleading. True, poverty has been stuck for non-Hispanic whites, though it’s fairly low. Since the late 1970s, it’s generally fluctuated between 8 percent and 9 percent, depending on the economy. But poverty among blacks—though still appallingly high—has declined sharply. In 2004 it was 24.7 percent, down from 33.1 percent in 1993, though up from 22.5 percent in 2000. As recently as 1983, it was 35.7 percent.

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Given these trends, the overall poverty rate should be drifting down. It isn’t. The main reason, as I’ve written before, is immigration. We have uncontrolled entry of poor, unskilled workers across our southern border. Although many succeed, many don’t, and many poor Latino immigrants have children, who are also poor. In 2004, 25 percent of the poverty population was Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1980. Over this period, Hispanics represented almost three-quarters of the increase in the poverty population.

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