Good News on Poverty

Good News via Robert Samuelson and Marginal Revolution.

While the number of people living under the poverty line have crept up, there is actually good news under the surface that has gone unreported (good news - unreported - your kidding me!)

Compared with 1990, there were actually 700,000 fewer non-Hispanic whites in poverty last year. Among blacks, the drop since 1990 is between 700,000 and 1 million, and the poverty rate -- though still appallingly high -- has declined from 32 percent to 24 percent. (The poverty rate measures the percentage of a group that is in poverty.) Meanwhile, the number of poor Hispanics is up by 3 million since 1990. The health insurance story is similar. Last year 13 million Hispanics lacked insurance. They're 60 percent of the rise since 1990.

To state the obvious: Not all Hispanics are immigrants, and not all immigrants are Hispanic. Still, there's no mystery here. If more poor and unskilled people enter the country -- and have children -- there will be more poverty. (The Census figures cover both legal and illegal immigrants; estimates of illegal immigrants range upward from 7 million.) About 33 percent of all immigrants (not just Hispanics) lack a high school education. The rate among native-born Americans is about 13 percent.

So, much of the increase in the people under the poverty line can be traced to immigration of low-skilled Hispanics trying to make a better life for themselves in this country. Of course, when these people first arrive, with no English, often lacking a high school education, and initially, no permanent job, they are going to be below the poverty line. Over time, many will find the American dream and move up (easy proof: if that were not so, why are so many trying so hard to immigrate here?) If we had been collecting the statistics carefully in the early 20th century, we would have seen a similar effect with the immigration of low-skilled Irish, Italian, German, etc. workers to this country. Surely, during this burst of immigration, it would have appeared that the poverty rates were going up, but not one would in retrospect argue anything but that everyone was getting steadily wealthier through this period.