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Drs. Berrick and Kimberlin on Transient Poverty

Government programs for the poor: Boondoggle or lifeline?

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Op-Ed published in the San Jose Mercury News as "Solving poverty: Research shows government benefits work."

Cuts to the food stamp program took effect this week. A typical low-income, three-person family will have about $30 less to spend on food every month from now on. Milk, eggs and bread. That’s what $30 will buy in a typical month. And that’s what children and families may do without as they stretch meager public benefits just a bit farther.

Cuts to food stamps are one more indicator of a country that’s rewritten the narrative on the positive attributes of government benefits for the poor. In fact, Congressional debates of late that assault programs for low-income and working-class families might lead the average American to believe that government assistance is a boondoggle – a waste of taxpayer-supported services that do more harm than good. But research coming out of UC Berkeley paints another picture that Congressional representatives and all Americans should heed: Government programs substantially reduce chronic poverty in the United States.

The poverty rate in California remains stubbornly fixed at about 16 percent. More troubling, children are especially likely to live in poverty. In our fine state, almost one in four children lives at or below the poverty line.  

But these numbers reveal only part of the story. They tell us how many are poor today, but they say nothing about how long Americans experienced poverty. Was it a year? Three years? Longer still? Decades of research show that the outcomes associated with long-term poverty are grave. Transient, or short-term poverty, is bad; long-term, or chronic poverty is much worse. Among children, in particular, those who spend many years in poverty fare worse on a variety of measures of health, development, education and well-being. In fact, the youngest children living in the deepest poverty for the longest periods of time have a tough time beating the odds stacked against them.

Using the newly developed federal Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) with a nationally representative dataset to examine poverty over an 11-year period, a Berkeley study examined rates of chronic versus transient poverty in the United States. Chronic poverty was defined as poor for more than half of the years examined. In contrast, transient poverty was defined as poor in at least one year but not more than half the years.

Chronic poverty was relatively uncommon, affecting only two percent or one in 50 individuals in the U.S. Transient poverty, however, was fairly typical, affecting almost one in five, or nearly 20 percent of the population.

The news coming out of the Berkeley study is important for at least two reasons:

First, the number of people living in chronic poverty is relatively low. That means that we can do something about this pressing social problem. With determined effort, we could eradicate chronic poverty in the U.S. today.

Second, according to findings from the Berkeley study, government benefits such as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Social Security have a substantial impact on persistent poverty. Absent government benefits, the chronic poverty rate would be more than five times higher, at 10.8 percent. Said differently, nearly one in nine Americans would experience long-term poverty if it were not for the essential supports government benefits provide. That level of chronic poverty would have dramatic implications for our country’s social functioning and economic potential.    

Rather than malign government benefits as a boondoggle, a more accurate narrative tells a starkly different story. Publicly-funded programs provide a life-line to low-income families, successfully protecting many from chronic poverty and its serious impact on health and well-being. Over the short-term and long-term, milk, eggs and bread make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable children and their parents.    

Sara Kimberlin (PhD '13) is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley. 

Jill Duerr Berrick serves as the Zellerbach Family Foundation Chair in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.