According to a recent Trump administration report, when poverty is “properly measured,” less than 3 percent of Americans are poor. If that sounds like a dramatic underestimation to you, that’s because it is—the comparable Census Bureau estimate is four times higher. That’s the difference between saying there are about 11 million people with below-poverty incomes in the United States (about the population of Georgia), or 44.8 million (roughly the combined populations of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia).
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Roughly half of the difference is because the Trump administration is measuring poverty with a federal survey that tracks household reports of spending, including spending financed by credit cards and other debt, rather than income. Luke Shaefer and Joshua Rivera at the University of Michigan have already detailed some of the problems with this approach, but in short, the measurement just doesn’t line up with any of the struggles we associate with poverty. In years when we know that more families had trouble paying for basic necessities (for example, during the Great Recession), the measurement the Trump administration used (labeled “consumption” in the chart below) shows a decline in the poverty rate. Every other measurement shows an increase.
The other half of the difference is because the administration is using a poverty line that will strike most Americans as far too low to be plausible: a mere $18,000 for a family of four in 2018. That’s $7,000 lower than the estimate used by other government entities, and about $15,000 less than the income that most Americans think a family would need to not be considered poor, according to public opinion research conducted by the conservative think tank AEI.
The public’s opinion is backed up by market data on the cost of housing and other necessities. A couple with two children will need to spend about $800 a month—$9,000 a year—to purchase the food necessary for a nutritious diet according to USDA’s “low-cost” food plan. The Trump poverty line would leave that family with $750 a month to cover the rest of their bills. If they live in Ohio, where living costs are below average compared to other states, that won’t even cover rent. Fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment costs more than $750 a month in every Ohio county. That means this family, who the administration is arguing is barely poor, cannot afford housing, transportation, child care, utilities, student loans, clothing, or any other bills, if they also want to be able to eat.
The closest the administration comes to acknowledging the public implausibility of its poverty line is when it notes that “poverty thresholds are arbitrary.” It’s not exactly a reassuring defense. Moreover, it boggles the mind to hear the administration claim that the Trump poverty line is both “properly measured” and “arbitrary.”
To be sure, it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise amount of income needed to not live in poverty in 2018 terms. Establishing a standardized poverty line, even if we all agree on what poverty means, is always going to involve some subjectivity and discretion. But that is not the same as drawing an “arbitrary” line.
At the very minimum, to properly measure what it takes to live at a dignified and minimally decent level in 2018 requires a poverty line that can be defended in terms of what it reasonably means to be poor today. Despite impressive technological advancements, a family of four still can’t take their $18,000 and travel back in time to live in 1960s.
Policy makers have long recognized this and adjusted eligibility thresholds for a number of income-tested services and benefits to keep pace with common sense. For example, a married couple with two children is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) until their income is over $50,000. In most states, the upper income eligibility limit for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reaches a similar level.
More likely than not, the Trump poverty line isn’t arbitrary at all. The administration and their right-wing allies are very determined to cut and impose punitive restrictions on pretty much every public service and benefit that goes to working-class and middle-class people based on their incomes. Artificially lowering the poverty line would help them do that—in effect, it’s an attempt to change the conversation. Instead of a continued focus on material hardship and the economy, the administration wants us to think that bad people on “welfare” are the real problem. Trump has explicitly said as much in discussions around benefits, describing people who receive them as lazy and having ”no intention of working at all,” yet “making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”
And so, Trump’s argument goes, the issue isn’t poverty—that doesn’t exist. The issue is fictional freeloaders, and cuts to Medicaid and SNAP are the punishment they deserve.