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New York Post

 

Mike's Misstep

July 15, 2008

By Heather Mac Donald

Irrelevant Poverty Ploy

DESPITE the fanfare attending Mayor Bloomberg’s new way of measuring poverty, the effort is largely irrelevant to the most crippling burden a poor child in the United States can face today: growing up without his or her father.

The proposed new measure of poverty would raise the number of New York City residents deemed poor - and thus eligible for more federal aid. That’s why Democratic mayors across the country, eyeing similar results for their own cities, have greeted it with delight.

Bloomberg’s effort does nothing to improve the debate about the causes and cures for long-term poverty. Indeed, it sidesteps the honesty we need.

The federal government’s poverty test has long been criticized. It calculates household needs almost exclusively based on food costs, and assumes that households spend a third of their income on food. In fact, thanks to America’s agricultural efficiency, food spending has dropped over the last 40 years to just an eighth of household spending. And on the income side, the traditional federal measure leaves out non-cash welfare programs like Section 8 housing vouchers, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and food stamps.

Bloomberg’s measure makes some reasonable changes - such as including expenses like rent and utilities as household needs, and counting a broader range of welfare programs as income.

Most significantly, it raises the threshold for poverty to cover all households whose income is 80 percent or less of what the median US family spends on certain basic necessities. This is a rather remarkable assumption - either about how close the average US household lives to poverty, or about how great the government’s responsibility is to redistribute wealth to bring everyone up to the median.

Note, too, that the “80 percent of the median” test is a relative measure: Under this definition, no general increase in affluence can ever eliminate “poverty” or the need for a larger federal government to “cure” it.

The net effect of the new formula? Poverty in New York City goes from 18.9 percent of the population to 23 percent.

Now, poverty in America is already a highly relative concept. Two-thirds of households deemed “poor” under the existing federal measure have either cable or satellite TV; 85 percent have air-conditioning. The biggest food crisis facing America’s poor is obesity.

But the real problem with the Bloomberg reformulation is its irrelevance to the underclass dilemma.

The mayor argues that “we can’t devise effective strategies for tackling poverty until we understand its full dimensions” - and that we can’t understand its full dimensions unless we measure it better. In fact, we already know the main drivers of poverty: illegitimacy and non-work.

If single mothers married the fathers of their children, 60 percent would be lifted out of poverty overnight. Nationally, children growing up in single-parent households are four times more likely to be poor than children living with both their parents.

An income deficit is the least of the handicaps facing children in fatherless families: Far more significant is the absence of paternal authority.

Boys raised in fatherless households have a much lower chance of receiving the parental discipline and guidance necessary to stay out of trouble and in school, as the endemic gang culture in the inner city shows every day. Children reared by both parents start out life with an enormous advantage over those with only one parent at home - even if that single-parent household has a greater income thanks to welfare benefits.

Bloomberg has been eager to wade into what he views as public health crises, such as secondhand smoke and restaurants’ high calorie counts. Here’s a public health crisis that is far more dangerous to the well-being of New York’s children: the breakdown of marriage.

The mayor could begin a dialogue on the issue by drawing on his enormous media clout. Any new poverty initiative should focus on improving the marriage rate for the poor - that includes trying to bring more men into the workforce.

Since the War on Poverty began, US taxpayers have coughed up nearly $11 trillion in means-tested welfare programs. Household income and amenities have risen dramatically across the country - thanks mostly to America’s vibrant economy and innovative businesses - yet the marginalization of the underclass has improved very little.

We don’t need a better way of measuring multi-generational poverty. We need to tackle its root cause.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/07152008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/mikes_misstep_119902.htm?page=0

 

 
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