January 31, 2009

No, not quite

The lede in a Washington Post story:

In soup kitchens, food pantries and universities across the country, activists are planting the seeds for an overhaul of the way America feeds its more than 35 million hungry people, the first major challenge to a system largely developed in the 1960s.

If we’re feeding these 35 million people then they’re not hungry are they? This should in fact read “feeds the more than 35 million people who would be hungry if we weren’t feeding them”. The actual article makes some reasonable points as well as the ritual “we need more money” claim. But while my original complaint might seem trivial there is a larger point to be made.

Uniquely amongst the industrial nations the US measures poverty by market incomes, everyone else measures it after transfers, benefits and taxes. Those numbers you see, of 12% of Americans living in poverty and so on, they are victims of the same linguistic construction as those hungry above. For the US poverty level is calculated before we take account of all the things that we do to alleviate poverty. We don’t include the EITC, Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps, none of the effects of these hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent are taken account of when we calculate the number in poverty.

What the number in poverty is in the US is in fact the number who would be in poverty if we weren’t spending hundreds of billions to alleviate poverty. Just as with those being fed being no longer hungry, most defined as poor in the US already get enough help that they’re not poor any more.

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