Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Presidents And Poverty

On Paula Zahn Now Monday night, former Bush campaign advisor Rev. Joe Watkins had an interesting take on poverty under our last two presidents:

...under Bill Clinton, 15.1 percent of the population was poor; under President Bush, 12.7 percent of the population is poor. That's a reduction, that's a good thing.
Okay, that may be technically true BUT... Those numbers are taken from Clinton's first year in office (1993) and Bush's most recent year (2004). By the end of the Clinton administration, however, that 15.1 percent had been reduced to 11.3 percent. And guess what? The percentage has risen every year under the Bush administration! It isn't exactly fair to compare Clinton's first year, when he hadn't had time to implement any policies, to Bush's fourth year, when his policies have had time to work their magic. If you want to compare "fourth years," Clinton reduced poverty 1.4 percent by 1996 whereas Bush increased poverty 1.0 percent by 2004. The gap grows much wider when comparing families in poverty: Clinton reduced this by 4.0 percent in eight years, while the number have increased by 1.1 percent in four years under Bush.

Aside from the game Watkins played with the numbers, I wouldn't put much stock in those percentages anyway. Heck, Ronald Reagan reduced poverty during his term, from 14.0 percent in 1981 to 13.0 percent in 1988. Aside from those who have canonized him, no one would cite Reagan as a hero in the War on Poverty. In many respects, the poverty numbers are merely a reflection of the general economy. That's why Bush the First and Jimmy Carter look bad, with increases of 2.0 percent and 1.4 percent respectively. I cannot imagine anyone saying that Carter was trying to screw the poor (or maybe he was... and he joined Habitat for Humanity to assuage his guilt!). If you're looking for some good news about poverty, at least we are still ahead of where we were before Lyndon Johnson, when 19 percent or more of Americans were below the poverty line.

UPDATE 09/17/2005 - The right-wing echo chamber is at it again. Parrotting Watkins, Bill "Loofah" O'Reilly claimed on his radio show that "the only fair comparison is halfway through Clinton's term, halfway through Bush's term." Of course, that ignores the obvious, which a caller was trying to point out to him: Bush didn't take over halfway through Clinton's term, he took over at the end of it when the poverty percentage was lower. I don't know why callers even try to correct these rambling idiots. I'll admit that the first few times I heard O'Reilly and Hannity, I thought about calling in to question their ridiculous logic. But it didn't take long for me to see that there was no point in trying.


Anonymous said...

There was a great episode of West Wing on this very topic not too long ago ... basically it had to do with "redefinitions," not actual improvement! (or non-improvement, as was the case on the show).

David Johnsen said...

Interesting idea. It's like, "If at first you don't succeed, change the definition of success!"

FWIW, according to, the definition of poverty was changed in 1969 and 1981. I find it amusing that income "excludes capital gains." I'm waiting for some politician to argue that these people are not really poor because they are making lots of money in stock dividends! It sounds like something Rush would say.