David Brooks Is Not Buying Your Excuses, Poor People

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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28:  A man carries a young child past the remains of convenience store and a senior center set ablaze during night riots smolder at dawn on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. A state of emergency has been declared in Baltimore following violent protests which erupted after the funeral service for Freddie Gray. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife on April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side and according to his attorney died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
A man carries a young child past the remains of convenience store and a senior center set ablaze during night riots smolder at dawn on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

David Brooks has come out with a brutally cruel hot take on Freddie Gray’s death, noting that the young man “was not on the path to upward mobility” when he was allegedly murdered by the police after being picked up without probable cause. Communities like the ones that Gray lived in need better norms and stronger morals, Brooks argues, more so than they need more government spending. 

For now, I am going to leave the reductive argument about social norms and social mobility aside. Nobody should take it seriously, particularly not when it is based on a bizarre misreading of federal data on poverty. 

The core of Brooks’s economic argument is this: 

The problem is not lack of attention [to poverty], and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate. Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

First of all, Samuelson is citing Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, who calculated that in 2011, spending dedicated to the poor averaged out to $13,000 per person below the federal poverty line — I’m not sure where the $14,000 and the 2013 are coming from. What counts as “spending dedicated to the poor” for the purposes of his tally? Any means-tested program, meaning Medicaid, food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, the child tax credit, the Supplemental Security Income program, welfare, housing assistance, Medicare Part D, grants for school districts serving low-income children, and Pell Grants.

But many of those programs aren’t just for families below the poverty line. Medicaid helps the disabled as well, for instance, and a huge chunk of its spending goes to doctors, hospitals, and administrators. Those school grants go to schools, not families. The earned-income tax credit goes to hundreds of thousands of families that are not below the poverty line. You don’t need to be below the poverty line to get food stamps, either. Dividing spending on all those programs by the number of people in poverty, then, is a daft way to measure public spending on anti-poverty programs. 

Moreover — and here’s the really gobsmacking part — many of these programs do not figure into the government calculation of the poverty rate. In other words, Brooks is claiming that federal spending on anti-poverty programs is not lifting families out of poverty… when the government specifically does not include the value of those very programs in its poverty calculations. 

Prepare to delve into the weeds to explain why that is. The federal bean counters consider families to be in poverty if they fall below a certain cash-income threshold. Therefore, Uncle Sam does not include the value of non-cash benefits in the calculation. Those non-cash benefits include — wait for it — Medicaid, food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and housing assistance, among others. A fuller accounting shows that food stamps alone lift 4 million people above the poverty line. The earned-income tax credit lifts nearly 6 million above it. Which is to say that “not bringing down the official poverty rate” is not a good yardstick by which to judge these programs.

Second, Brooks seems to cite a breakdown of social norms as being a primary driver of poverty. But changes in the labor market — specifically spiraling inequality and stagnant wages for tens of millions of working Americans — not in social values are the primary culprit for our persistent problem with poverty. Since the 1980s, federal programs have had to work harder to keep families afloat, since the economy has not been working for them. 

There are a million statistics showing the same thing: The rich have made out hugely since the 1970s. The poor have seen their slice of the pie get smaller. The average pre-tax income of a household in the lowest fifth of the income distribution increased from $17,600 in 1979 to just $24,600 in 2011. For families in the top percentage point of the income distribution, earnings climbed from $529,300 a year to nearly $1.5 million. Given those income dynamics, government spending has become more important for poverty reduction, not less important. 

One last point. Brooks uses some very tricksy, misleading math to show that the federal government has spent more and more on poor families in the past 30 years, to no avail. But over that time, government spending has actually drifted away from the families that need it the most. Robert A. Moffitt of Baltimore’s own Johns Hopkins University has found that aid to profoundly poor single-parent families dropped 35 percent between 1983 and 2004, while it rose 74 percent for those earning a bit more more. “You would think that the government would offer the most support to those who have the lowest incomes and provide less help to those with higher incomes,” he said, releasing his findings. “But that is not the case.”

But there is a kernel of a smart anti-poverty proposal hidden in Brooks’s piece. “If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate,” he writes. Giving money to poor people to alleviate poverty? Sounds like a good idea to me.