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On the April 22, 2012, edition of CBS’ Face the Nation, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley appeared alongside Cornel West, a professor at Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, to discuss the book they co-wrote, The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.
Host Bob Schieffer kicked off the conversation about poverty in America by asking, "How bad is it, Tavis?"
Smiley responded, "It's horrible when one out of two Americans, Bob, are living either in or near poverty. That means 150 million Americans, half of us, are wrestling with this issue."
A reader asked us if this was accurate, so we took a look.
We first turned to the official poverty statistics, which are collected by the Census Bureau. According to the most recent figures -- for 2010 -- 15.1 percent of Americans, or about 46 million people, are officially in poverty. That’s far below both the percentage and the raw number Smiley offered on television.
However, Smiley did say "in or near poverty," so we checked that, too. The Census Bureau found that 104 million people are living at at twice the poverty level, or 33.9 percent of the population. That’s still short of the levels Smiley cited.
In fact, the national median household income for 2010 was $49,445. By comparison, a non-elderly household with two adults and one child would be at the poverty level if it had income of $15,030. To be "in or near poverty" according to Smiley's formulation would mean being about 3.3 times the official poverty level.
Calling those who are up to 300 percent of the poverty level near-poor "is a stretch," said Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Michael Wiseman, a George Washington University economist, agreed, saying that "‘near poverty" is generally interpreted as having an income less than twice the poverty standard. … I know of no country in which all persons with incomes less than the median are considered poor or near-poor. Would this mean that all persons with incomes above the median should be considered rich or near-rich?"
There is one Census Bureau measure that supports Smiley’s claim -- an unofficial one.
Currently, poverty is measured by establishing a set of multiple income thresholds for families of different sizes and compositions, then comparing family incomes to those levels. Being in poverty means that you that have an income below the threshold for your family type. But for years, scholars have debated whether there is a better way to measure poverty than the official statistic. One of the efforts to test an alternative measurement is called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, or SPM.
The SPM doesn’t just consider cash earned but also in-kind transfers such as food stamps, net taxes paid, and medical and work-related expenses, such as child care and commuting costs, wrote University of Massachusetts-Amherst economist Nancy Folbre in a New York Times blog post. It also employs a "new standard of need, linked to what low-income families actually spend," she wrote.
In 2010, a federal interagency working group gave a green light to calculating the statistic, but only as long as the long-standing poverty calculation retained its official status. The SPM "will be an additional macroeconomic statistic providing further understanding of economic conditions and trends," the Census Bureau wrote.
In November 2011, the Census Bureau released an official report with SPM data for 2010. The poverty rate reported by the SPM was only a percentage point higher than the official rate, though different sub-groups fared differently. (Because of how the SPM is calculated, it showed lower poverty rates among children and higher rates among senior citizens.)
The important point for Smiley’s claim is that the SPM report found that just under 48 percent of the population had incomes at twice the poverty level or below -- a number in tune with Smiley’s claim that "one out of two Americans … are living either in or near poverty."
When we reached Smiley, he said that his claim on Face the Nation stemmed from the very first footnote of his and West’s book -- a CBS News report headlined "Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income." A look at the CBS report confirmed that the number being cited was from the SPM, not the traditional poverty measure.
So Smiley has support for his number from Census Bureau statistics. However, in the context of a fast-paced television interview, some nuance got lost.
The statistic has not been received neutrally, said Douglas Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland who specializes in children and poverty. He said that "liberals like" the SPM while "conservatives dislike" it.
Given the nature of the statistic as new and unofficial, economists we interviewed agreed that it would have been more appropriate if Smiley had specified that he was using an alternative measure. Otherwise, viewers would think he’s talking about official poverty statistics.
"It strikes me as a very, very good idea to make clear to listeners when one is citing this new measure," said Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute agreed. "If someone wants to use the alternate measure, I think they should be clear that it’s not the official poverty line they’re using," he said.
The Census Bureau has produced a number that supports Smiley’s claim that "one out of two Americans … are living either in or near poverty. That means 150 million Americans, half of us." However, it is not the Census Bureau’s official measure of poverty; that statistic would have shown no more than one-third of Americans to be near-poor. Failing to mention that it’s an alternative statistic may leave a misleading impression with viewers. On balance, we rate the statement Half True.
CBS News, Face the Nation transcript, April 22, 2012
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, 2012
CBS News, "Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income," Dec. 15, 2011
Census Bureau, The Supplemental Poverty Measure (report), November 2022
Census Bureau, "Table 6. -- People With Income Below Specified Ratios of Their Poverty Threshold by Selected Characteristics: 2010"
Census Bureau, "Table H-5. -- Race and Hispanic Origin of Householder -- Households by Median and Mean Income"
Census Bureau, "Table 2. -- Poverty Status of People by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2010"
Census Bureau, "Table H-8 -- Median Household Income by State: 1984 to 2010"
Census Bureau, "Poverty Thresholds for 2010 by Size of Family and Number of Related Children Under 18 Years"
New York Times, "What Percentage Lives in Poverty?" (Economix blog post by Nancy Folbre), Nov. 14, 2011
New York Times, "Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling," Oct. 9, 2011
Email interview with Michael Wiseman, George Washington University economist, April 23, 2012
Email interview with Arloc Sherman, senior researcher with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 23, 2012
Email interview with Andrew G. Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, April 23, 2012
Email interview with Douglas Besharov, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, April 23, 2012
Interview with Tavis Smiley, broadcaster and author, April 23, 2012
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