Tag Archives: government

New Measures Reveal the True Impact of America’s Anti-Poverty Programs

Image from Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons
Jane Waldfogel carries out research on a range of topics including the measurement of poverty, food insecurity, work-family policies, the effects of the Great Recession on parents and children, and inequality in school readiness and school achievement, both within the United States and across countries.

Half a century ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched America’s War on Poverty; yet by the 1980s President Ronald Reagan famously declared that “we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” To back up this claim, conservatives point to official U.S. statistics showing that the percentage of Americans living in poverty, around 15%, has changed very little over the decades.

But the official poverty measure is outdated – so I teamed up with several colleagues to produce estimates using a more accurate one. When we use the improved measure, it turns out that U.S. social programs and taxes have had a powerful effect on reducing poverty since the mid-1960s. Back then, government programs did little to alleviate poverty, but today public programs and taxes cut the percentage of people living in poverty by almost half, from the 28.7% it would be without government efforts to 16% after public programs are included. Far too many Americans continue to have inadequate incomes, but U.S. policies have helped millions avoid poverty.

The Need for a More Comprehensive Poverty Measure

America’s longstanding official poverty measure is outdated, because it is not adjusted appropriately for the needs of different types of individuals and households and it fails to take into account the full range of income and expenses that individuals and households face. In particular, it does not calculate the income effects of the full range of government programs whose aim it is to reduce poverty in the United States. Because of these and other failings, researchers cannot simply track official poverty measurements if they want an accurate picture of trends in poverty or the role of government policies in alleviating it.

Along with Liana Fox, Irv Garfinkel, Neeraj Kaushal, and Christopher Wimer, I re-analyzed trends in poverty using an improved measure – called the supplemental poverty measure – that includes near-cash benefits, in-kind benefits, and tax credits that go to various individuals and families. This supplemental measure also adjusts income calculations for taxes paid and for unavoidable child care, work-related, and medical expenses.

Since 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated annual poverty levels using both the traditional and the supplemental poverty measure, but it has not estimated historical trends using the revised measure. My colleagues and I have taken this extra step, estimating trends in poverty since 1967 using two new measures, one similar to the supplemental poverty measure in which the poverty threshold is calculated for each year using contemporary living standards, and another using an “anchored supplemental poverty” measure, in which we take today’s supplemental threshold and carry it back historically. The second approach is the one we use here in this brief. Data on incomes over the years come from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey.

When we use the supplemental poverty measure to track the percentages of Americans under the poverty line, a different picture emerges. The traditional poverty measure says that 14% were poor in 1967 and 15% in 2012, but the anchored supplemental measure shows the percentage living in poverty falling by more than 40%.

A New Perspective on U.S. Anti-Poverty Efforts

Our estimates also provide new insights as to the role of government programs. Using the supplemental measure anchored to 2012, we tracked the percentages of the U.S. population that would have been in poverty with and without including income from taxes and government social benefits. The green line shows poverty without taxes and benefits, and the blue line shows how much poverty has been reduced by taxes and social benefits.

Government benefits include food and nutrition programs such as Food Stamps, school lunches, and programs for pregnant women and infants; cash welfare benefits of various kinds; housing subsidies; and Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and public pensions. Taxes include both those that reduce income (payroll taxes, federal and state income taxes) and those that boost incomes (like the Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax credits). Clearly, U.S. taxes and benefit programs have greatly reduced the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line. If we only counted incomes and expenses in the private market, poverty would have increased slightly over the past half century. But when taxes and social benefits are included, poverty sharply declines.

These results underline a key point: if we want to properly assess the progress the United States has made in fighting poverty, we must include all income and expenses. Properly measured, poverty has fallen substantially since the War on Poverty was declared. The war is far from over, but hard-won ground has been gained – and millions of Americans would suffer if anti-poverty efforts cease now or suffer major reverses.

As People Learn about Affordable Care, Support Increases

The launch of Maryland's health care exchange. Photo by Brian K. Slack/MDGovpics.

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

Download a PDF from SSN.

Amy Fried
Amy Fried is in the department of political science at the University of Maine. She is the author of Pathways to Polling: Crisis, Cooperation, and the Making of Public Opinion Professions.

As the new Affordable Care marketplaces get under way in each state, how many Americans without health insurance will learn about their new options – including the generous subsidies available to help people with low or moderate incomes afford premiums for health insurance plans? Public confusion has been widespread, but outreach experiences suggest that providing accurate information – especially face-to-face – makes people more positive toward the health reform law and increases their willingness to sign up.

In the words of outreach specialist Libby Cummings of the Community Health Center in Portland, Maine, “When we have a chance to explain it to people, it’s been very positive. People are excited about it and want to have health insurance. People see it as an opportunity to get coverage that was never open to them before.” (more…)

The Promise of Union Programs that Recruit and Support Workers to Run for Public Office

Photo by Brooke Anderson vai flickr.com

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Nicholas Carnes
Nicholas Carnes is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at the Duke University. He is also the co-director of the research triangle SSN regional network.
David Broockman
David Broockman is a graduate student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research is focused on the representation of minority groups in politics

Most Americans depend on wages, salaries, and benefits from working-class jobs. But public offices are overwhelmingly occupied by people from very economically privileged backgrounds – officials who often set aside the concerns of working Americans when public policies are debated, enacted, and put into effect. Correcting this glaring imbalance in the backgrounds of officeholders requires many efforts – including programs to identify, recruit, and support political candidates from the working class.

Candidate outreach programs sponsored by labor unions already exist in many places – and they have demonstrated great promise. When candidates from blue-collar and middle-class backgrounds mount well-prepared election campaigns, they usually prove appealing to the general voting public. Once in office, working-class Americans are more likely than other elected leaders to fight for workers’ concerns about workplace protections, business regulation, tax policy, and educational and social safety net programs. Programs that recruit and support more of these working-class candidates represent an important opportunity to make government at all levels more democratically responsive. (more…)

How a Bold Public Official in the Conservative Heartland Won an Improbable Victory Over Big Tobacco

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Michael Givel
Michael Givel is a Professor of Political Science at University of Oklahoma. He is a member and Vice Chair  of the Sierra Club of the state Oklahoma Chapter.
Andrew Spivak
Andrew L. Spivak is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author, with Michael Givel, of Heartland Tobacco War.

In 2003, tough new regulations to ensure smoke-free environments in workplaces and public locations were enacted by the Oklahoma legislature. This was a striking victory for public health and reformers advocating tobacco controls in one of the most conservative heartland states – a victory that no one would have predicted just a few years earlier. For decades, tobacco industry insiders and lobbyists correctly saw their relationship with Oklahoma legislators as a “love fest.” Compared to many other states, Oklahoma did very little to regulate smoking or tax cigarettes, despite mounting evidence of smoking’s adverse impact on health.

Inaction might well have continued but for the arrival in 2001 of an activist new Commissioner of Public Health. Recruited from Florida and installed by Governor Frank Keating, Dr. Leslie Bietsch instituted “emergency” regulations and launched an aggressive public campaign for tobacco controls – getting out well in front of health advocacy groups and provoking ire from lobbyists and many legislators. Bietsch only lasted two years, but his battle against tobacco interests was a critical turning point. Not only was he victorious in the arena of clean indoor air, he also set the stage for increasing Oklahoma’s cigarette taxes to levels more on par with other states. As we analyze in our new book Heartland Tobacco War, Bietsch’s story show how a principled public official can escape the constraints of business as usual and mobilize public pressure to support reforms.

Unions Foster Middle Class Leadership in American Democracy

Education Minnesota represents some 70,000 teachers and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, and the NEA. Connections like those can help union candidates win office.

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Aaron J. Sojourner is in the department of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Before joining academia, he was a policy advisor at the local and national levels.

Labor unions are known to improve wages and benefits for their members. Yet economic results are not all that unions accomplish. They also make a difference in democratic politics by lobbying for policies, by providing money and volunteers in elections – and also by fostering leadership skills among their members and helping some win elected public offices.

The role of unions in helping members win elected office has not received as much scholarly attention as the other economic and political functions unions perform. In part that is because this function is not easy to study in a rigorous, empirical manner. I have devised a new way to test the hypothesis that unions foster elected officials – and my findings open the door for further explorations of how union membership facilitates electoral careers – and why this matters. (more…)

Why Now Is the Time To Build a Broad Citizen Movement for Green Energy Dividends

Photo by Greg/woop via flickr.com.

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Theda Skocpol
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and is the Director of the Scholars Strategy Network. Her research focuses on health reform, social policy, and civic engagement.

Reelected to a second term, President Barack Obama is speaking with new force and clarity about the threat of climate change; and he is encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency to take bold steps to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. To make up for Congressional unwillingness to legislate, the Obama administration seems ready to do all it can through executive actions. Many professional environmentalists are delighted, and will rely on inside-the-beltway lobbying to urge regulators onward. That is fine for the short run, but it would be too bad if efforts to counter damage from global warming stopped at insider advocacy.

The new few years are exactly the right time to build a broad nationwide network of popularly rooted organizations committed to supporting carbon-capping as part of America’s transition to a green economy. To be prepared when the next opening arises in Congress, organizational efforts must reach far beyond the Beltway – to knit together alliances and inspire tens of millions of ordinary Americans to push for change. (more…)

The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

The author's latest book, Fear Itself.

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Ira Katznelson
Ira Katznelson is in the department of political science at Columbia University and is the president of the Social Science Research Council. He is the author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said incoming President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as he pledged in March 1933 to lead the U.S. federal government in “action—and action now” to meet crises of global upheaval and economic collapse. Subsequent New Deal reforms have been lionized by analysts. But what were the pervasive fears to which Roosevelt pointed, the fears that shaped and informed transformations in U.S. policy and politics in the mid-twentieth century?

Just before his death in 2007, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted that his magisterial Age of Roosevelt had been “conditioned by the passions of my era” and observed that “when new urgencies arise in our own times and lives, the historian’s spotlight shifts, probing …into the shadows, throwing into sharp relief things that were always there but that earlier historians had carelessly excised from collective memory.” Taking this insight to heart, my new book Fear Itself reexamines the New Deal from a perspective informed by the urgencies of the early twenty-first century—with its economic volatility, global religious zealotry, and military insecurity.  (more…)

How Women Legislators Help States Become More Supportive Of Older Citizens

Hip hip hooray for women legislators! Photo by Salvation Army USA West via Flickr.com

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Joanne Connor Green
Joanne Connor Green is in the political science department at Texas Christian University. She studies the role of gender in politics.
Charles Lockhart
Charles Lockhart is in the political science department at Texas Christian University. He studies the differences of social programs across the United States.

Americans live in an aging society. As the Baby Boomers born after World War II retire, older people will become a larger segment of the U.S. population for at least the next two decades. Demand for federally funded Social Security and Medicare benefits will grow, and all fifty states will also face big challenges meeting the needs of elders. Our research shows that some states will do better than others in providing attractions and supports that matter for America’s graying citizens – and women serving in state legislatures will often be leaders in devising public policies that further care for the elderly in ways that improve the quality as well as length of life.

Previous research has documented that female state legislators are more interested than their male counterparts in supporting education and other public programs that meet the needs of families with children. To be sure, research to date leaves much more to be learned about the conditions that translate a female legislative presence into extra support for families. Democratic Party control of legislatures may magnify women’s influence, and so may an active women’s movement in any given state.

In addition to asking how women’s presence in legislatures translates into more support for families, we should also wonder about the extent of female legislative support. Does women’s legislative impact extend to policies that aim to help elders as well as younger families with children? And, if so, do states with more women in their legislatures actually prove to be better places for older people to live and flourish? We have investigated these issues as part of a broader project comparing state-level public policies that help people at various stages of aging. (more…)

When Election Rules Undermine Democracy

Photo by mrsdkrebs via Flickr.com

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Amel Ahmed
Amel Ahmed is in the Political Science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studies electoral systems and its effect on democratic outcomes.

Democracy comes in many different forms, because communities and nations can devise various rules to shape elections and the processes of government decision-making. The specific rules chosen matter a great deal – especially the rules adopted for voting and elections. After all, who gets to vote, how, and when determine citizen access in a democracy – and decisions about such matters influence the balance of power in government and what public officials are likely to decide about war and peace, taxes and the economy, education, and social benefits. The outcomes of fights over the rules for elections can determine who has a seat at the table of government at all, and whose interests will matter or be ignored. (more…)

Who Pays America’s Taxes?

Image by Chris Tolworthy via Flickr

This article is a Scholars Strategy Network Brief.

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Alexander Hertel-Fernandez
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez studies Government, Social Policy, the Democratic Party, and the politics of federal tax policy at Harvard University.
Vanessa Williamson
Vanessa Williamson studies Government and Taxation at Harvard University.
Image by Ken Teegardin via Flickr

Image by Ken Teegardin via Flickr

“Almost half of all Americans pay no taxes!” That’s the claim bandied about in elections and overheated television talk-fests. It refers only to federal income taxes, from which various groups are exempt. But many other taxes are also collected at the federal, state, and local levels. When all kinds of taxes are added up, almost all Americans pay substantial amounts.  In fact, poor and middle-income people frequently fork over higher shares of their incomes than the very rich.

Federal Income and Payroll Taxes

The U.S. federal government relies on two big taxes collected from large numbers of Americans: the federal income tax and payroll taxes regularly deducted from wages and salaries to cover Social Security and Medicare benefits. Income and payroll taxes each contribute about 40% of federal revenues. Almost half of U.S. households currently do not owe federal income taxes, but over three-fifths of these “non-filers” are workers who contribute very substantial payroll taxes. For example, Americans making the lowest incomes pay nearly 9% of their wages in payroll taxes, about the same percentage as middle-income workers pay.

Only about 17% of American households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, because they are headed by people in special sub-groups:

  • Elderly men and women, who previously contributed payroll taxes during their working lives, living on their Social Security benefits.
  • Students or disabled individuals.
  • Workers unable to find jobs. During the recent recession, the numbers of long-term unemployed people not filing income tax returns went up.
  • Active-duty members of the U.S. military, who do not have to pay taxes on their combat pay and do not owe income tax after having been deployed. (more…)