News Item

The Ever-Present Yet Nonexistent Poor


As a poverty specialist for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector is one of the right-wing media machine’s most prolific pundits. In 1996, the year of the welfare reform debate, he was cited in media outlets an average of more than 15 times a month (Nexis). Rector also feeds a vast network of right-wing talkshow hosts and syndicated columnists who pick up and broadcast his findings. Yet for all his influence, Rector’s work is a mess of misleading statistics and specious arguments all contrived to accomplish a single goal: to cut spending on the poor.

In 1995, Rector testified before Congress that “since the onset of the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent over $5.3 trillion on welfare. But during the same period, the official poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged.” Rector’s figure–which he soon updated to $5.4 trillion–is grossly misleading: It includes huge amounts of spending not directed towards families on welfare.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated that approximately 70 percent of the federal spending that Rector classified as “welfare” went to households that did not receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the core welfare program in recent decades. Instead, most of the money went to non-AFDC households with elderly, disabled or “medically needy” individuals, as well as students and low-income workers–not groups most people would associate with “welfare.”

Even if Rector’s $5.4 trillion figure were accurate, it would need to be put in perspective. Spending on “national defense” since 1964 overshadows even Rector’s inflated “welfare” number, exceeding $8 trillion at the time of Rector’s testimony–and that figure does not include spending on intelligence, foreign military aid and other military-related items.

Despite its flimsiness, Rector’s charge echoed through the media. The Los Angeles Times published a column by Rector (7/11/95) making the $5.4 trillion claim. He repeated the figure on a PBS NewsHour panel (12/26/95). Tony Snow picked it up in a column in USA Today (9/25/95) and Linda Bowles published it in a Chicago Tribune column (7/31/96). Syndicated columnist Walter Williams then placed it in the Cincinnati Enquirer (11/26/95) and Dallas Morning News (12/9/95), among other papers. The figure reappeared in the Arizona Republic this year in a news article about welfare fraud (4/19/98).

Erasing Hunger

Despite his 1995 claim before Congress that 30 years of welfare spending had not reduced poverty, Rector has at the same time argued for years that poverty has fallen so steeply since the War on Poverty that virtually no one in America today is really poor (see Footnote*). This argument was enunciated by Rector in a 1990 Heritage Foundation “Backgrounder” titled “How ‘Poor’ Are America’s Poor?” and Rector has updated the paper several times since then–always around the September release of the Census Bureau’s annual poverty report. Rector’s report is given a different name each time it’s released–this year’s version was called “The Myth of Widespread American Poverty”–but the content is virtually identical from one year to the next.

Rector writes in the 1998 report that “despite frequent charges of widespread hunger in the United States, 84 percent of the poor report their families have ‘enough’ food to eat; 13 percent state they ‘sometimes’ do not have enough to eat, and 3 percent say they ‘often’ do not have enough to eat.” But his figures are taken from the “food sufficiency” portion of the 1988-1991 Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is considered by many researchers to be an inadequate measure of hunger. He fails to mention in his report the authoritative 1995 Food Security Survey, performed by the Census Bureau on behalf of the USDA, which was designed to improve upon the old “food sufficiency” measure.

The Census study found that in addition to the 14 percent of poor individuals found to be hungry that year, another 25 percent of the poor were classified as “food insecure.” That means those households had a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” For example, 81 percent of respondents in households classified as “food insecure” said that sometimes in the past 12 months the food that they bought “just didn’t last” and they “didn’t have money to get more.” 63 percent said they could sometimes provide “only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed the children” because they “were running out of money to buy food.”

Nationwide, 13.8 percent of Americans, poor and non-poor, were either hungry or food insecure–a number identical to the 13.8 percent poverty rate that year. In other words, while it is true that not every person counted as officially poor lacked food, for every officially poor person who didn’t lack food, another (officially “non-poor”) person did.

Curiously, despite his omission of the Census Bureau’s more recent findings, Rector was not unaware of them; he refers to the Census Bureau’s study in a footnote. One can only wonder how Rector happened to come across the newer report while leaving out its salient findings.

The Wealthy Poor

Rector makes much of the fact that many poor people own cars. “Seventy percent of ‘poor’ households own a car; 27 percent own two or more cars.” But Rector does not stop to consider that many of these households might need cars to get to their jobs. In fact, the 69.7 percent of poor households that Rector reports as having one or more cars in 1995 roughly mirrors the 61.4 percent of poor households with one or more workers in that year.

Rector has claimed that “poor Americans live in larger houses or apartments” than “the general population in Western Europe.” Presumably as evidence of this assertion, he included in this year’s report a chart titled “International Comparison of Living Space.” However, what the chart actually compares is the average floor space per person in certain European cities, such as Paris and Athens, with the average floor space in all poor U.S. households–22 percent of whom live in rural areas and 33 percent of whom live in suburbs. (Even with such an egregious bias, his numbers are underwhelming: The mostly rural and suburban homes of the U.S. poor are only about one-fourth larger than the average home in notoriously crowded Paris.)

The intent of Rector’s dubious number-crunching was to make his point that “there is a huge gap between the ‘poor’ as defined by the Census Bureau and what most ordinary Americans consider to be poverty.” He was more right than he knew. That same year, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a poll of “ordinary Americans” asking the question: “What amount of weekly income would you use as a poverty line for a family of four (husband, wife and two children) in this community?” The official poverty line for such a family that year was $14,654 a year, or $282 weekly. Sixty-four percent of respondents suggested a figure greater than $282.

The following year, the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes conducted a poll in which respondents were told the current poverty line and asked whether they thought the line should be “set higher, set lower, or kept about the same.” Fifty-eight percent said the poverty line should be higher and 32 percent said it should be kept about the same. Only 7 percent said it should be lower. The respondents who thought the poverty line should be changed suggested an average level of $19,400–more than $4,600 higher than the actual level that year. (Given the percentage of “non-poor” people who have trouble buying enough food, this seems like a more realistic standard.)

All these flaws did not keep Rector’s poverty “research” from being taken seriously by various media outlets–not just by Rush Limbaugh (9/25/98). His most recent paper prompted a news article in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (9/25/98) and columns in such papers as the Kansas City Star (9/26/98), Christian Science Monitor (10/7/98) and Chicago Tribune (11/25/98).

[FOOTNOTE:] * Rector tries to reconcile these arguments by cautioning that “higher material living standards should not be regarded as a victory for the War on Poverty. Living conditions were improving dramatically and poverty was dropping sharply long before the War on Poverty began.” But if these “dramatically” improved living conditions did not come from government programs, where had they come from? Certainly not from an improved job market; in January 1995, when Rector presented his testimony to Congress, jobs were neither better-paying nor more plentiful than they had been two decades earlier. The unemployment rate was a half-point higher than in 1973 and real hourly wages for the bottom tenth of workers were 12 percent lower.

Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Original Author: Seth Ackerman