In a statement submitted in advance of the Nov. 9, 2011, Republican presidential debate in Michigan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., decried the reach of poverty today.
"More Americans are in poverty today than at any time since the Census Bureau began keeping records on it over 50 years ago," he said.
Although CNBC asked candidates to submit opening statements and posted them on its website, when the debate opened they ditched them. But we thought Gingrich's statement was worth checking.
Gingrich has focused on poverty before, accusing President Barack Obama of being "the most successful food stamp president in American history" because "47 million Americans are on food stamps." (We rated this statement Half True.)
We decided to check whether Gingrich is right in this new statement, so we turned to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is the official federal source of poverty statistics.
Gingrich is right that the numbers go back more than half a century, to 1959, and that the absolute numbers of people in poverty in 2010 -- 46.1 million -- is at its highest since the statistic has been recorded.
However, Gingrich ignores population growth since 1959. Over that period, the U.S. population has increased by 73 percent. So today’s poverty rate -- that is, the percentage of people in poverty -- is 15.1 percent, compared to a high of 22.4 percent in 1959. Between 1959 and 1965, the poverty rate was higher every year than it is today.
That paints a somewhat different picture than what Gingrich suggested.
Still, the poverty rate in 2010 was higher than it’s been in every year for more than four decades save one -- 1983, when the rate was 15.2 percent -- and that’s largely in tune with Gingrich’s larger point.
A final note: Unlike his claim about food stamps, Gingrich was more oblique about the blame Obama bears for this statistic. But he does seem to blame the president.
After saying that "more Americans are in poverty today than at any time since the Census Bureau began keeping records on it over 50 years ago," Gingrich added, "President Obama and his administration have tried to blame the persistent unemployment and economic stagnation on the severity of the recession they inherited. However, the historical record shows us that the deeper the recession the stronger the recovery. America should at worst be finishing the second year of a booming recovery by now."
It’s impossible to parcel out blame for the nation’s economic troubles in a scientific fashion, but we think that it’s unfair to place that much of the blame for high poverty on Obama.
Gingrich is right about the absolute number of Americans in poverty. A better understanding of the extent of poverty in the United States requires looking at the number of people in poverty as a percentage of the population. Measuring it that way, the current poverty rate is not the highest ever. Still, this rate is the second highest in more than four decades, which fits with Gingrich’s general point. However, we think Gingrich overstates the amount of blame Obama personally deserves for this statistic. On balance, we rate his statement Half True.