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The Census Fails to Count 100 Million People as Living in Poverty

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In this Real News Network interview, IPS Fellow Karen Dolan, who works with the Poor People’s Campaign, discusses her new study on poverty in the US.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

So how do you really measure poverty? When the war on poverty started in 1964 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, we used measurements that focused on food cost and other metrics that really don’t speak to 21st-century realities. Listen, I mean, it was a book that came out by Michael Harrington in 1962 called The Other America. It was about the poverty in America, in Appalachia, in the inner cities, and across America, in the barrios. And nobody in our country wanted to even admit that we had a problem. And Michael Harrington pushed that envelope.

And actually, between Michael Harrington and the people in SNCC, and the war against racism in America, it pushed the U.S. government to create a war on poverty. Well, the U.S. Census now says that poverty is falling down to 11.8%, and that means 38.1 million Americans. Yet another study shows that 40% of all Americans could not find $400 in an emergency. So how do you measure poverty? Well, the new study coming out of the Institute for Policy Studies says another hundred million Americans at least are languishing in poverty, hidden by the data.

The author of that report is the Institute for Policy Studies Fellow, Karen Dolan, who directs their Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project; and co-author of the IPS Poor People’s Campaign reports, The Soul of Poor Folk and A Poor People’s Moral Budget. And Karen, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you, Marc. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: It’s great to see you. So I mean, when you look at this question of poverty, if you look at this census map that they have that just talks about poverty, and you look at this map and see where it is… And I looked at the thing, and since I’m in Maryland, Maryland popped up with just 10% of the people being in poverty. I went, “What? 10%? Impossible. That’s ridiculous.” So talk a bit about the origin of your work and what you did, and why you maintain that the poverty rate in America is so much higher, and what it really is.

KAREN DOLAN: I don’t think it’s uncontroversial that the poverty… Well, among conservatives who’d like to cut social services, they will make the claim that poverty is eradicated already in the United States. But for most social scientists, it’s not uncontroversial that the way we measure poverty in the U.S. is under-counting poverty drastically. So we’re relying on an almost 60-year-old measure that looks at very limited ways in which we decide who is poor and who is not poor. And it doesn’t adequately catch the level of economic hardship in this country.

And so, the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Census Bureau has responded in the last several years by acknowledging something called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is a little bit more comprehensive. And it is specific by geography. So it takes into account some of the cost of living and those sort of things and does count some of the supports that people get, and also out-of-pocket expenses for medical care and work and childcare and things like that that are necessary for people to live. The official poverty measure doesn’t do that. However, even with that measure–we’re just talking about a family–the official poverty measure is a family of four in 2018 getting by on $25,000. That isn’t really subsistence living. And even with the Supplemental Poverty Measure, we don’t get that much higher.

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So let’s say you’re making–so you’re not under the poverty level–you’re making $30,000 for a family of four. You’re not able to get by and have the kind of full life that people, especially living in most wealthy country in the world, should have. So we, along with the Poor People’s Campaign, are looking at a different way to measure poverty that really gets at that number that you were talking about, that you showed at the beginning of your segment here, about that 40% who are $400 away from an emergency. Well, a $400 emergency happens almost daily to families in this country. And if you’re not able to respond to that without borrowing, without going into debt, without jumping off the cliff into poverty, then you’re really not living a financially secure life. And that’s the case for what we’ve estimated to be nearly 140 million people on the U.S.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how we translate that that politically. I was thinking about that on my way back from the dentist this morning. When I got to the dentist, I was thinking about our conversation today because they said, “Oh, Marc, by the way, you need a root canal right away.” I went, “What?” So I went to the other dentist, and the root canal is going to be $1800. It’s insane. And then I think, “Well, supposing I wasn’t working, supposing I was working two or three jobs to make ends meet, to make sure that my kids had food on the table and I could put clothes on their back to get them to school, how would I pay for that? How would I live?” And I could be making 40 grand a year and not be able to find that money if I had a wife and a couple of kids. I mean–

KAREN DOLAN: That’s right.

MARC STEINER: I’m saying… but I don’t think people get that, how deep that really is.

KAREN DOLAN: I think a lot of people feel it. Because we know that is the way we live our everyday lives, even people who have full-time work, some people who are lucky enough to have health insurance through their employer or be able to afford health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has helped a lot of people have health insurance that couldn’t have it before because medical debt is the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the United States. So people do feel this. We know it on a gut level. But when we see census data that comes out that says… Like your response when you looked at the–

MARC STEINER: Census map? Yeah.

KAREN DOLAN: Yeah, when you looked at the census map and you saw that it says only 10% of people in Maryland live in poverty, when you know at the gut level that that’s not true, and you know your own sense of precariousness. So people understand that, I think. And we’re really trying to speak to the situation that people know that they’re in and talk about, this is a reality for nearly 40% of us, and even above that. So maybe above the 40%, you could afford a $400 emergency, but you might not be able to afford an $1800 root canal. So that’s going to capture even a lot more people.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at these charts, they talk about the cost of medical care and the amount of people who have lost medical care in this country over the last couple of years. It’s actually pretty stunning. I mean, there are more and more people–especially in communities of color; foreign born–that do not have health insurance. It’s just rising exponentially, going towards 20%, as we can see from this chart. And I think that these are the kinds of factors that we’re not always taking into account when we talk about how you measure poverty, how you define what poverty means. Because I think most people in this country, Karen, even if they are in that area where they are tight for money, can’t find the 400 bucks. And we’re talking about hundreds of millions; 140-150 million people, maybe more–you can tell us better about that–people don’t want to think of themselves in poverty either.

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KAREN DOLAN: People don’t.

MARC STEINER: Because it’s such a stigma.

KAREN DOLAN: There’s a stigma. And that’s also what the Poor People’s Campaign and the reports that we’ve put out, and the message that we’re trying to put out, that it’s a deliberate attempt. So there’s not only an attempt to hide the poor, there’s also an attempt to–there always has been–to stigmatize the poor as if it’s a character fault. But of course, it’s not a character fault. It’s not laziness. People who are struggling to get by are working two, three, four jobs. So they’re extremely hardworking people.

These are systemic problems. So these are systemic problems in the wealthiest nation in the world; that is a choice. It is a political choice that we have so many people in poverty and so many low-income people struggling to get by. We need to make different choices.

We can, for instance, cut the military budget by $350 billion and afford Medicare for All. We can have a fair taxation policy on the wealthy and corporations, and closing loopholes, and we can get $900 billion out of that. We can get billions of dollars of switching to clean energy and stopping subsidies from fossil fuels. So the Poor People’s Campaign and the reports that we have written on the Moral Budget and on the Souls of Poor Folk, it looks at those interlocking oppressions, how they are systematic, how they are political choices, and how we can make different political choices so that people are not stigmatized, but so that we have chosen to have a society in which everyone can thrive.

MARC STEINER: Right. And so, politically… I mean, I wonder how that gets pushed. Now you have Trump saying because of his thing called the Chained Consumer Price Index–which I had no idea what that meant until I read the article–that way they measure poverty, and poverty is less. So he talks about poverty going down in his administration, not going up. Your reality, your painting for where America is, is much broader than that. So the question becomes how to explain to people about what you’re saying is the depth of poverty, and have people see that given there’s this huge push from the other side saying it’s not as great as it was, that it’s actually going down.

KAREN DOLAN: Well, I think that people aren’t going to fall for this sort of sleight of hand of, “Oh, magically, we’re going to count poverty differently.” Right? So the Consumer Price Index would say, “Oh, the price of gas goes up. So instead of driving gas guzzlers, a person’s going to go out and buy an electric car.” Well, that doesn’t work for people that don’t have the kind of money.

MARC STEINER: Right. After you pay $1800 to get your root canal done, then you go out and buy a Prius because your car costs too much money, you can’t afford the gas. Right.

KAREN DOLAN: That’s right. That’s right. So people that are struggling cannot change their consumer habits in that way. And people do know that. You’ll also see it though, you see, in polling data, you see a huge support for Medicare for All, for instance. You see that people understand the unfairness of all the tax cuts going to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. So there’s a fundamental sense of justice where I think that people aren’t going to be fooled by these tricks from conservatives. And conservatives want to have it both ways. They’ll say, “Oh, the war on poverty hasn’t worked. These social safety net programs haven’t worked.” Yet, they also want to say, “Oh, there’s no poverty at all.” So which one is it? I mean, both of the stories are false on their face. And these are our lived realities, so we know what these are.

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We know, fundamentally, that many of the economic systems are rigged in this country. We know who is benefiting and who isn’t, because the vast majority of us aren’t. And so, just treading water and just getting by isn’t the kind of future we want for our children. So these are very bread-and-butter issues that are very important to all Americans. So when you see some of these proposals from, say a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, populists that have the message about how we can all thrive, and how we all can have a more just and fair society, that does attract people. People are attracted to that. They’re very taken by Reverend Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis and the Poor People’s Campaign. That’s now in 43 states, and they’re on a bus tour across the country, and people are really paying attention.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, last week in the midst of all this impeachment hoopla, dropped a program, announced a program, the Just Society Program. And it has five very ambitious bills to attack poverty at its roots. So the more that we’re looking at the systemic causes of poverty, the more we’re talking out loud, getting presidential candidates and other lawmakers to speak about the systemic causes of poverty, get rid of that stigma, get rid of that myth that it is a character flaw in individuals, then people understand it because they’re living it.

And by the way, the Poor People’s Campaign also makes a point of pointing out that the vast majority of poor people in the United States are white. It disproportionately affects people of color, but the vast majority of poor people are white. This has become a racialized issue, especially under Reagan, but goes back before Reagan, but the whole so-called “welfare queen,” these myths that attack people’s character and become very racialized. So the Poor People’s Campaign and our work tries to look at these interlocking oppressions of mass incarceration, denying voting rights, assaulting our democracy, bloated Pentagon budgets, not just paying attention to helping the climate, but actually hurting the climate, and climate injustice by having pollution, and leaded water, and toxic chemicals in schools, in poor communities. At the same time, propping up the very polluting corporations that are hurting most of us.

MARC STEINER: And I think that what you’re saying is really important. I think connecting those dots is really important. As we face this moment with this impeachment process, we forget that it’s issues like this that can push an agenda to change America. And they can get lost in all the other rhetorical battles of the moment. And I think that’s really important to understand.

And Karen Dolan, I do appreciate the work you do a great deal. And thank you so much for taking your time here with The Real News today. And I look forward to really many more in-depth conversations with you, Reverend Barber, Liz Theoharis, and others to really kind of get under this issue for Americans who really grasp who we are and what we’re facing, and how we can change it. So thanks for your work, and thanks for joining us today.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: It’s always a pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. Go on our website and just send us a message. We’d like to hear from you. Take care.

DHARNA NOOR: Hey y’all, my name is Dharna Noor and I’m a Climate Crisis Reporter here at The Real News Network. This is a crucial moment for humanity and for the planet. So if you like what we do, please, please support us by subscribing at the link below. Thank you.

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