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Commentary: Missouri Could Do Better In Fighting Poverty

photo of locked poor box from saint francis xavier
Maria Vladimirova

This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

This central pillar of Johnson’s Great Society was designed to finally defeat the age­old scourge of poverty and destitution in the United States. Major programs that were part of the War on Poverty include Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and Food Stamps.

The GOP, since Reagan, has attacked these programs as an unwarranted expansion of government power that failed in their mission of lifting Americans out of poverty. In this regard, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan was merely channeling Reagan when he accused anti­poverty programs of destroying economic opportunity in a recent speech.

Did we lose the War on Poverty?

While poverty is very much still with us, a recent study by scholars affiliated with Columbia University suggests that we have made much more progress in combating poverty than GOP critics and others have recognized. According to this study, poverty rates would have climbed much faster if the government programs created under Johnson did not exist. More Americans would have lived below the poverty threshold if not for those programs. In fact, a lower percentage of Americans were poor (16 percent) in 2012 than in 1967 (26 percent). This last finding is truly astounding in light of the fact that in 2012 America was still getting out from under the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression while in 1967 we were still at the height of our postwar economic prosperity.

So how is it that the GOP can claim that government anti­poverty programs do not work while scholars armed with data and charts show the opposite? The answer lies in the way that poverty is officially counted. Put simply, the official poverty measure is outdated and no longer works the way it’s supposed to.

The poverty measure used by the U.S. government was created in the 1960s ­­ before the War on Poverty ­­ and never revised. According to the Columbia University study, it underestimates poverty by using outmoded thresholds. At the same time, it overestimates the poverty rate by ignoring government subsidies like food stamps and tax credits.

The Columbia study uses a more accurate approach to study the incidence of poverty. It employs the supplemental poverty measure (SPM). The SPM is better than the official poverty measure in that it counts more resources at a household’s disposal and makes adjustments for family expenses on basic necessities. It also adjusts for geographic differences in housing costs.

Using the SPM, the Columbia researchers found that without anti­poverty programs, poverty in the U.S. would have risen from 25 percent in 1967 to 31 percent in 2012. They also found that child poverty, and particularly deep child poverty, would have approached crisis levels without government assistance. In 2012, these programs prevented 8 million children from suffering deep poverty. (Deep poverty is defined as 50 percent or more below the official poverty line. With the official poverty level for a household of four at $23,492, a family in deep poverty would earn $11,000 and change.)

Furthermore, the SPM allows researchers to isolate and accurately measure the impact of individual programs ... something the official poverty measure cannot do. Thus the researchers found that the Earned Income Tax Credit and food and nutrition programs, in particular, have contributed greatly to reducing poverty. Surprisingly, the OPM does not count benefits from those programs.

In short, since 1967, as a result of the much­maligned War on Poverty, millions of Americans have avoided the type of poverty that used to wreak social havoc 50 years ago (according to Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers). Still, many Americans still live in poverty and this is clearly unacceptable.

Indeed, poverty is still a major concern in our region and state. St. Louis has one of the highest poverty rates in the country ­­ 27 percent in 2012, which translates to about 86,000 people. By way of comparison, Chesterfield, one of the largest cities in St. Louis County only numbers 47,684 residents.

A recent report details the disturbing poverty trends in our state. Poverty has increased in Missouri to 16.2 percent in 2012 from 13.4 percent in 2008. According to the report, released by the Missouri Association for Community Action, 947,792 Missourians are at 100 percent or below the federal poverty level.

The state can take concrete steps that would stem this troubling trend. The legislature could endorse Medicaid expansion as a means to provide medical care to the indigent and create high­paying jobs at no cost to the state. It seems absurd not to take this step when one realizes that Missouri taxpayers are funding Medicaid expansion in other states. While the GOP­controlled legislature dithers, a large number of Missourians are without health coverage.

Another program that would help reduce poverty in Missouri is implementing the earned income tax credit. State Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat whose district includes Independence and parts of Jackson County, introduced an EITC bill in the General Assembly in 2013 but it failed to garner enough votes in committee for a full vote in the Senate. This was truly unfortunate because such a program would provide working poor households with tax credits that would help to lift these families out of poverty.

GOP arguments to the contrary, the War on Poverty has produced tangible results in lifting American families out of poverty. More work needs to be done, however, and what better place to start than in our own city and state.

Robert A. Cropf, Professor of Political Science at Saint Louis University, teaches in the area of public administration and conducts research in the areas of e-governance, policy process, public budgeting, comparative public administration, and state and local politics.