"When George Bush became president of the United States, 17 million people were in poverty. When he left, 30 million people were in poverty."

Marcia Fudge on Thursday, January 17th, 2013 in a panel discussion on poverty

Rep. Marcia Fudge says 30 million people were in poverty when George W. Bush left office

As a member of Congress who represents an urban area with many low-income residents, Warrensville Heights Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge has made fighting poverty one of her legislative priorities in Congress, as well as a priority of the Congressional Black Caucus she recently began to chair.

On Jan. 17. Fudge joined a George Washington University panel discussion on poverty that was hosted by PBS’ Tavis Smiley. Other panelists included outspoken Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a recent Republican candidate for president.

During the discussion, Fudge decried efforts to balance the federal budget by cutting aid to the poor. She argued that many of the nation’s fiscal problems were caused by two wars in the Middle East, the creation of the Medicare Part D program, and tax cuts implemented by President George W. Bush. In an effort to point out that increased needs for social service programs did not begin under President Barack Obama, Fudge said that  "When George Bush became president of the United States, 17 million people were in poverty. When he left, 30 million people were in poverty." When Smiley pointed out that poverty continued to worsen during Obama’s presidency, Fudge agreed. She said neither party has done enough to fight poverty, but health care reform legislation Obama passed "significantly" helped poor people, as did money in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for programs like Head Start, Pell Grants, food stamps, and unemployment insurance. She argued problems would be worse if Obama hadn’t taken those steps.

PolitiFact has periodically examined claims about poverty in the United States. The poverty numbers that Fudge cited for the Bush presidency actually sounded low to us, so we asked her office where she got them.

Fudge spokeswoman Belinda Prinz replied that Fudge - the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Subcommittee that oversees the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) used statistics on the number of people using SNAP benefits during Bush’s presidency instead of numbers that described those living in poverty.  She said poverty and SNAP numbers both rose during Bush’s presidency, though they didn’t increase at identical rates. SNAP benefits, with some exceptions, are available to people with incomes up to 130% of the poverty line and thus can be used to aid the near poor, including the working poor, as well as anyone classified below the poverty line, said Prinz.

"It was unintentional to describe SNAP data as poverty data," Prinz’s email said.

Prinz forwarded material from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that indicated 17.3 million people used food stamps when Bush took office in 2001 and that 28.2 million used them during 2008, his last year in office. By 2012, USDA figures show the number of people using the SNAP program rose to 46.6 million people. Prinz also sent a report from the Food Research and Action Center that said food stamp participation topped 31.7 million people during Bush’s last month in office, December 2008. A Congressional Budget Office report on the food stamp program attributes the dramatic rise in the program’s use to "the deep recession from December 2007 to June 2009 and the subsequent slow recovery."

As Fudge’s office said, poverty rates and food stamp usage both rose during the terms of Presidents Bush and Obama. Census data shows that in 2001, the year President Bush took office, 32.9 million people - or 11.7 percent of the U.S. population - lived below the poverty level. During Bush’s last year in office, 2008, 39.8 million people or 13.2 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. By 2011 - well into Obama’s term - there were 46.2 million impoverished people, a 15 percent rate of poverty.  

The point that Fudge was trying to make - that poverty rose under the presidency of George Bush - is correct. But singling out Bush is misleading because poverty also has gone up under Obama. And her numbers were incorrect. Her substitution of SNAP numbers for poverty data led her to significantly understate the number of people living in poverty. We rule her statement False.