US census figures show more than one in five children are living in poverty
No, the US census figures do not show that.
The figures released by the census also show that little dent has been made on America\’s high levels of poverty, with some 15% of the nation – representing around 46.2 million people – living in poverty in 2011.
No, they really do not show that.
Here, in the Census report, is why they do not say that:
The poverty estimates released today compare the official poverty thresholds to money income before taxes, not including the value of noncash benefits.
What the Census figures actually report is the number of people who would be living in poverty if it were not for most of the things that the American Government does to alleviate poverty.
This is an important difference.
This chart uses a very different measure of poverty* but does allow us to compare across countries.
You will note that the level of poverty by market incomes alone is exactly the same in the UK and US and actually lower than it is in Sweden.
The second measure is after taxes and benefits. Yes, isn\’t it amazing: if you give money to poor people then they will be less poor. And there will be fewer poor people once you measure the help given to the poor.
Except, except, we come up against something of a problem. Much of what the US does to alleviate poverty comes through either the tax system or is benefits in kind. As we can see from what Census says, they are not including this in their calculations of poverty. In that second measure of poverty they are also not considering benefits in kind. I am not sure whether they are including the effects of the tax system (more specifically, I know they are including income taxes paid but not sure if they are including tax credits offered).
In more detail: the US poverty figures include market income plus direct money transfers. Essentially, the traditional welfare, or TANF (or whatever they\’ve renamed it). They do not include the EITC (equivalent to our working tax credits), Section 8 housing vouchers (housing benefit) nor Food Stamps (we have no equivalent).
And the EITC, Section 8 and food stamps are the three major poverty alleviation programs (actually, Medicaid is much larger but that\’s a difficult one to estimate the importance of in these figures) in the US.
Therefore, essentially, the US poverty numbers detail poverty in the US before poverty alleviation attempts. The numbers for all other countries show them after poverty alleviation attempts.
Anyone care to calculate the UK poverty figures before housing benefit, tax credits and income support? For that\’s pretty much what that US number is.
Which brings us to what The Guardian (and every other fucker out there to be honest) gets so wrong. The US poverty numbers do not count the number of people living in poverty. Not by the standards we apply to every other country.
They count the number of people who would be living in poverty if the government were not attempting to alleviate poverty. They are, not quite but much more closely, akin to the market incomes measures of poverty, not the post tax and benefit ones.
*The standard US definition of poverty is an absolute standard. This chart shows relative poverty. But the same point about poverty alleviation still stands.