Does Ron Haskins Know Anything About Poverty Data?

Ron Haskins, whom the Brookings Institution confusingly lists as an expert, has a piece over there from earlier this week titled The War On Poverty: What Went Wrong? The piece is so statistically incoherent that it is really hard to understand why he is given any such platform to begin with.

Haskins' goal is to show that anti-poverty spending isn't achieving anything. In his deep and serious analysis, Haskins goes right for the nonsense:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. 

Let's be super-clear here. There are two figures. The first is the number of people who fall below the official poverty line using the official poverty metric. He uses this poverty metric throughout the entire piece. The second is the number of dollars spent on means-tested programs, which is apparently sourced from this CRS report and includes both state and federal spending (Timothy Noah has a worthwhile post on it). It amusingly excludes veterans' programs because it would clearly be an outrage to compare veterans on welfare programs to those dirty welfare people.

The point being made here is that we are spending all of this $1 trillion, but look at how it isn't really cutting poverty so much. See: 46.5 million people are still in it. But this analysis only makes sense if the $1 trillion is actually being counted towards the official poverty metric that produces the 46.5 million figure. And the vast majority of it is not.

As I painstakingly detailed before, the official poverty measurement counts towards total income each family's pre-tax market income, plus cash benefits, but not non-cash benefits, not tax credits, and not capital gains. The biggest cash benefit program is Social Security, which pulled 22 million people out of poverty last year. But as that is not included in Haskins' $1 trillion figure, there is not actually that much going on in the cash benefit side of things.

Of the $1 trillion Haskins talks about, $746 billion refers to federal spending (and is broken out here). I won't go through all of the list items because it is so long, but some big ticket items should make my point. Of that $746 billion in spending, $296 billion comes from Medicaid, $78 billion comes from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, $74 billion comes from food stamps, $41 billion comes from Pell Grants (of all things), $28 billion comes from Section 8 housing, and $22 billion comes from the low-income Medicare prescription drug benefit. Together, just these few big ticket items sum to $539 billion, or slightly over 72 percent of the federal total (I could not find a state breakdown).

Crucially, none of this spending counts as income for the official poverty metric that generates the 46.5 million figure Haskin cites!

But does that mean Section 8 rental subsidies are not making housing more affordable for poor people, that SNAP isn't helping poor people buy food, that Medicaid is not providing health insurance to poor people, that the EITC and CTC aren't delivering out cold hard cash? No. Those things just aren't showing up in the official poverty metric. The only obvious big ticket federal items that are embedded in that $746 billion figure that do show up in the official poverty metric are SSI and TANF, which together sum to a measly $57 billion. That's it.

So let's really bask in the pure absurdity of what Haskins is doing here, writing at the website of the very august Brookings Institution. He is showing how much our $1 trillion in means-tested spending is not cutting poverty by using a metric for poverty that does not include the overwhelming majority of the money in its calculation. There is no debate here. What Haskins is doing in his presentation of these figures is nonsense. He is either being deeply dishonest in the way that he is conducting himself or, somewhat more charitably, does not understand what any of the numbers in his post actually mean and how they can be rationally fitted together into a coherent analysis of anti-poverty policy.