We have a lousy economy. But are eighty percent of Americans really living in poverty?

No doubt you have heard about the AP’s report headlined "Exclusive: 4 in 5 in US Face Near-Poverty, No Work." Did you smell a rat when you read that headline?

The lead sentence of the AP story, as James Taranto notes in an excellent analysis of the claims ("Faces of Poverty?"), actually gives the game away:

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

The AP’s report, by Hope Yen, is based on a new study by Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis.

If you read the story, however,  instead of the catchy headline, the truth hits you in the face. Taranto’s italics alert you at once to the scam: for at least parts of their lives.

Oh, dear. Although I live quite comfortably, that definition definitely makes me a “face of poverty:” I was a freelance writer in my twenties. This interlude is more than enough to put me in the AP’s eighty percent.

Like me, Taranto is also a “face of poverty”by these rules. He writes of an email correspondence with Rank:

Rank tells by email that a single period of unemployment is sufficient to meet the definition of "periodic joblessness" and that there is no lower limit on the duration of such a period (the same is true of welfare receipt). That means this columnist is part of the 79% by virtue of having been unemployed once in our life–for two weeks, in 1991. We blame George H.W. Bush.

Ironically, you can be quite affluent and fall into this “near poverty” level:

Yet another problem is that somebody can have a "near poverty" income without actually being anywhere near poor. The obvious example is an adult college student with a part-time or no job who subsists on parental or financial aid. His statistical "near poverty" is actually a reflection of affluence, or at least opportunity.

What was Rank up to? The short answer is he wants more programs and bigger government and is not above making outlandish claims to reach that goal. Here is the email he sent to Taranto:

"Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need," [Rank] tells Yen.

According to Rank's definition, if you ever receive welfare benefits, you have experienced economic insecurity. It is difficult to see how one could expand welfare programs without increasing the proportion of adults who benefit from them. Thus the problem is defined in such a way that the proposed solution is certain to make it appear worse.

I want to add something to Taranto’s fine analysis: What Rank’s study actually shows is resiliency: the “poor” such as my former self and Taranto during his two weeks in 1991, can generally get jobs and get out of “poverty” on their own steam. More government safety nets are the last thing needed by these temporary poor, who are capable of rising on their own.

The era of poverty can also be a choice that is an investment in the future. I wouldn’t take anything from my harrowing freelance writer period. Ultimately, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (I exaggerate) by getting a job I loved at a newspaper, but I did some good work during the poor period and still regard some of my best “clips” as from that period. I let my "face of poverty" period go on too long, and I sometimes regret this. 

But the truth is that I was poor by choice. I always had it in my power to get a job instead of living in a garret writing magazine articles. The last thing I needed was the temptation of help from the government.

But I suspect that, although the wily Rank uses the temporarily poor-by-choice types such as myself to make an argument for more government programs, these programs will really be aimed at the long term poor, or the people who will be most harmed by them. Too much government largess can turn somebody from temporarily dependent on government to intergenerationally dependent.