New data reveal persistent, elevated poverty rates in the United States in the wake of recession. The news of economic stagnation among low-income Americans comes at a time when right-wing outlets are leveling attacks on anti-poverty programs and other policies that could raise incomes, drive economic growth, and lift millions of Americans out of poverty.
On September 17, the United States Census Bureau released updated nationwide statistics on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage for 2012. Tens of millions of Americans have seen no positive change in their circumstances from year-to-year. From the press release:
The nation's official poverty rate in 2012 was 15.0 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line. This marked the second consecutive year that neither the official poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty were statistically different from the previous year's estimates. The 2012 poverty rate was 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2007, the year before the economic downturn.
According to Census Bureau data, the poverty rate, which neared all-time lows by 2000, has been on the rise for more than a decade through two distinct periods of recession and recovery.
Despite more than three years of consistent economic growth, and a recovery of the financial sector, millions of Americans remain mired in poverty, where they are often the target of right-wing assaults.
Right-wing media attacks on anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reached new heights in the past year. A misleading Fox News documentary portrayed the alleged abuse of the program by a single California recipient as a harbinger of fraud nationwide. Meanwhile, various Fox personalities have wildly exaggerated actual rates of fraud and abuse. At least one attack on SNAP inflated actual abuse statistics by 5,000 percent.
Although these segments frame a narrative regarding how much the government should cut from these benefit programs, they completely ignore the fact that abuse rates in SNAP and other government benefits are historically low and the economic return on investment is positive. The fact that Fox News, in particular, has begun using its own misleading coverage of benefit abuse as a lobbying and promotional tool to influence members of Congress shows unprecedented legislative influence by the right-wing media in dismantling the social safety net.
Right-wing attacks have also been leveled against proposals to increase the federal minimum wage, an action that would immediately lift millions of workers out of poverty and provide a boost to the economy.
Part of the attack against lifting the minimum wage has consistently focused on the involvement of labor unions. In his preview of the latest poverty data, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) explained that unionization is one of the best options available to alleviate poverty. His analysis of union activity in OECD countries concludes that higher rates of union membership have a positive impact on lowering poverty rates. Labor unions, via collective bargaining, effectively raise wages and therefore the share of economic productivity distributed to workers. In cases when they are politically active, unions typically promote policies that they believe would benefit other workers, spreading the benefits of unionization to union members and non-members alike. From CEPR:
There are many other important differences that could be important in reducing poverty in these countries. However in almost every case, unions were a major force in advancing the various policies that are associated with lower poverty. It would have been difficult to envision a scenario in which these policies would have been enacted with pressure from unions.
Decreasing union membership is often celebrated by the right-wing as an ideological victory, when it in fact represents an economic policy failure. The right-wing media remain unflinching in their constant attacks on worker mobilization and labor unions.