The rich should pay more taxes because of rising income inequality, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a Jan. 7, 2013, interview on MSNBC.
Sanders’ comments came after anchor Thomas Roberts asked him whether he, President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers are ready to "go after corporations that in some cases pay no taxes at all." Roberts asked, "Do Democrats smell blood in the water here?"
Sanders responded, "Well, Thomas, it's not smelling blood in the water. What it is is looking at reality, and the reality is that we have growing wealth and income inequality in America. People on top in large corporations doing phenomenally well. Middle class disappearing. Poverty levels at an all-time high."
The part of Sanders’ comment that caught our eye was that "poverty levels" are "at an all-time high." We wondered, is that really the case? Is it really higher now than during the Great Depression?
So we looked at U.S. Census Bureau data. This data goes back only to 1959 -- which poses the first problem for Sanders’ claim. Because the federal government did not calculate poverty statistics before then -- here’s a brief history of how the statistic came about, and some of the critiques of it -- we don’t have official data for much of the nation’s history, including, for instance, the Great Depression. This is problematic because Sanders used the phrase, "an all-time high."
There’s a second problem: The poverty rate in the most recent year, 2011, isn’t even the highest rate since the data began in 1959. In 2011, the poverty rate was 15.0 percent. Here are the other years that matched or exceeded that rate:
2010: 15.1 percent
1993: 15.1 percent
1983: 15.2 percent
1982: 15.0 percent
1964: 19.0 percent
1963: 19.5 percent
1962: 21.0 percent
1961: 21.9 percent
1960: 22.2 percent
1959: 22.4 percent
In other words, the rate in 2011 was tied for the 10th-highest since 1959. And while poverty in 2010 was the highest it had been in 17 years, it actually dropped, albeit slightly, between 2010 and 2011.
In fairness, we should note that Medicare started in the mid 1960s and Social Security was indexed for inflation in the 1970s, and poverty rates haven’t been as high since then. Sanders vigorously defends both programs.
When we asked Sanders’ office to explain how they came up with the statistic, a spokesman said the senator was referring to the overall number of people living in poverty, not the rate as a percentage of the national population. "In 2010 and 2011, more Americans lived in poverty than at any time on record," said spokesman Jeff Frank. "That was the point that the senator was making."
It’s correct that the raw number of Americans in poverty hit a high in 2010, since data began, though the number fell modestly in 2011, from 46.3 million to 46.2 million, according to the Census Bureau.
We asked economist Tara Sinclair of George Washington University whether it’s reasonable to justify what Sanders said by referring to total numbers of people rather than the rate.
She noted that Sanders did say "levels," rather than "rates," which could be interpreted as being consistent with using raw numbers.
"There are reasons to care about the sheer number of poor people, even if the growth in the number of poor people is in part due to population growth," Sinclair said.
But she added that the rise in population shouldn’t be discounted, either. "There are more people in the U.S. than ever before, and that's why people often look at rates," she said.
The numbers do not entirely support Sanders’ claim. The best evidence in his favor is that the raw numbers of Americans in poverty hit an all-time high in 2010, at least since records have kept. However, they fell modestly in 2011, the most recent year available.
Meanwhile, the sweeping nature of Sanders’ comment -- that "poverty levels (are) at an all-time high" -- is problematic. If you factor in population growth, the rate of Americans in poverty in 2011 was only the 10th-highest since 1959. And it’s impossible to know how many years prior to 1959 were higher, including the Great Depression.
On balance, we rate Sanders’ claim Mostly False.
Bernie Sanders, interview with MSNBC, Jan. 7, 2013 (CQ subscribers only)
U.S. Census Bureau, Table 2. Poverty Status, by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin, accessed Jan. 22, 2013
Oregon Center for Public Policy, "How We Measure Poverty," February 2000
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, Jan. 17, 2013
Email interview with Jeff Frank, spokesman for Bernie Sanders, Jan. 17, 2013
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