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Study: Safety Net Programs Actually Do Reduce Poverty


by: Katie Singh

Thu Dec 12, 2013 at 10:30 AM CST


The War on Poverty was started by a Texan nearly 50 years ago, but Texan politicians today haven't shown nearly the same dedication to helping our society's most vulnerable. Rick Perry has called Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and is determined to hurt poor Texans by refusing to expand Medicaid. Texas Republicans in the House have slash food stamps by $40 billion (while conveniently receiving millions in farm subsidies). To add insult to injury, Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis said last week that he thinks the minimum wage should be abolished altogether.

There's bad news for these safety net-hating Republicans this week. A new study out of Columbia Univeristy has found that social safety net programs have been highly effective at reducing poverty over the past 50 years. In fact, social safety net programs are the reason why poverty didn't skyrocket during the great recession that started in 2008, despite record unemployment.

Read more about the study's findings and what they mean for policymakers after the jump.

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In order to thoroughly and accurately measure poverty over time, the Columbia researchers used an amended version of the official poverty measure. The Census Bureau has been using its official poverty threshold since the 1960s, which bases its calculations on the price of food. The researchers at Columbia instead used a variant of the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account additional factors, such as housing and medical costs. The supplemental measure is generally considered more accurate than the official measure because it is more realistic about the cost of living. The researchers then took this alternative measurement of poverty and traced it back to 1967 in order to compare poverty rates across the past few decades.

The results they found were compelling. As the Washington Post reported, "According to the new research, the safety net helped reduce the percentage of Americans in poverty from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. The results were especially striking during the most recent economic downturn, when the poverty rate barely budged despite a massive increase in unemployment." They further found that programs like SNAP and Medicare have been especially effective at keeping children and the elderly out of poverty.

The Columbia researchers also found that were it not for safety net programs, more Americans would be living in poverty now than in 1967. The Washington Post continued on to explain that, "without taking into account the role of government policy, more Americans - 29 percent - would be in poverty today, compared with 27 percent in 1967."

The study shows a rather mixed bag of results when it comes to poverty in America today. While poverty among children and the elderly has dropped dramatically, poverty among working adults has stayed roughly the same since the 1970s. Perhaps this is because minimum wage growth has stagnated, failing to keep up with both inflation and productivity gains. The last time the minimum wage was higher than the poverty line was in 1982. On one hand, it's clear that safety net programs have been vital tools to help keep low-income Americans out of poverty. At the same time, it shows that we still have a long way to go to eliminate some of the causes of poverty in the first place.

50 years after the original War on Poverty began, it's clear there's still progress to be made. Safety net programs are an important step, but they need to be paired with an broader push to raise low wages and alleviate growing levels of economic inequality. One Texan started the push to help those in poverty. Let's hope a new generation of Texas leaders emerges soon to continue that important work.



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