Politicizing Poverty

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

The poverty rate dropped to its lowest level since 2002 but don’t expect to read any upbeat news stories on it. The number of people living below the poverty level of $20,625 per household of four declined by .5 million to 36.5 million persons nationwide. Yet in the face what some would call positive news, others have fixated on the negative results of the census, such as the .5% increase in Americans without health insurance. Approximately 15.8% of the American population did not have health insurance in 2006, up from 15.3% in 2005.

Former U.S. Health Department Assistant Secretary Wade Horn anticipated the negative headlines following the 2006 census results. On August 27, the day before census results were released, he told a Heritage audience that a small decrease in poverty will lead to “headlines that say… ‘Poverty held steady despite great economy.’” In contrast, he skeptically argued, a small increase in poverty measures will lead to headlines like “Poverty dramatically increases” and “Failure of government to address poverty sufficiently.” By focusing on low insurance rates, public figures still retain the opportunity to criticize the government for not addressing poverty.

Frank James, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, seems to follow Dr. Horn’s prescient model. In his article, “Census: Uninsured up in 2006,” James dismisses the poverty gains as statistically insignificant, and asserts that the “the poverty rate was essentially unchanged in 2006,” echoing the U.S. Census’ report that the poverty decline is “not statistically different from 2005.” In contrast, James passionately calls the increase in uninsured Americans “a trend for which no one would be shocked to see Democrats blame on President Bush.”

Others headlines focused equally on decreased health insurance rates, including “Income, uninsured rise while poverty declines, Census says” (Houston Business Journal) and “Poverty rate down but fewer have health insurance” (Reuters). A Central Penn Business Journal stub by Christina Olenchek, “Census: more people uninsured,” does not mention the poverty data.

The fixation on a .5% increase in uninsured Americans likely stems from Bush’s threat to veto the upcoming State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) reauthorization bill. Immediately following the U.S. Census presentation, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) released a press release claiming that the President’s plan to veto SCHIP “is a shameful reflection of national priorities.” CHA considers the 2006 census data as justifying SCHIP reauthorization, boldly arguing that “Each year the release of new figures by the U.S. Census Bureau highlights the scope and severity of this problem” with little ensuing change, and that “The time to move from analysis to action passed long ago.”

The debate within the media over whether to stress poverty successes or failures serves as a microcosm of the politicization of poverty in America. Robert Rector argues that poverty remains politicized because “what we will do as a society is invent new problems so that we can always have a large number of people ‘in deprivation.’” “Otherwise,” he asserts, “we really couldn’t continue to fuel the growth of the welfare industry.” Rector is a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, and was credited by the Wall Street Journal as a strong force behind the 1996 welfare reform.

Dr. Horn argues that his efforts in trying to improve the poverty identification process demonstrated that “the political reality that poverty, believe it or not, in Washington, D.C. . .is a political issue, and there are those who like to see high numbers and those who like to see lower numbers.” Low poverty rates serve as a disincentive for the growth of the welfare state, causing a decline in federal block grants. They also have the potential to decrease welfare, Medicaid, and SCHIP government employees, to name a few. Increased poverty levels, in turn, spur on new funding.

In the 1960’s, Robert Kennedy and others linked poverty to malnutrition; in the ensuing decades, malnutrition, hunger, and even high levels of food insecurity have become more and more scarce. “I can assure you that when we get down to the point where we don’t have people that are worrying about if they have enough food to eat, we’ll come up with a new scale, and a new problem to solve,” argues Rector. He remains skeptical about subjective measures of poverty such as food insecurity, especially when deprivation consequences cannot be medically verified. Perhaps health insurance levels, as promoted by public interest groups and the media, will become that new measure.

Bethany Stotts is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.

 

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