Senator Jeff Sessions speaks at the Values Voter Summit, October 7, 2011. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

An excellent new report from Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama proves that we spend more than $60,000 on every poor household in the United States every year, thereby raising the typical poor household’s standard of living above that of the typical middle-income household.

That’s right, I said “excellent” and “proves.” Why? Well, just take a look at this analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)—an economic think tank that a bunch of muckety-mucks in Washington, DC, think is so “renowned” at knowing numbers.

According to this CBPP outfit, the senator arrives at the $68,000 figure by simply “adding up the cost of a large number of programs that are targeted on low- and moderate-income households—or on schools and communities with large numbers of low- and moderate-income students or residents—and dividing the total cost of these programs by the number of households below the official poverty line…. It treats all the benefits that go to households with annual incomes above the poverty line as though they were expenditures made on behalf of households with incomes below the poverty line.”

So what’s the problem? If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a DC native, it’s this: My town has got to leave more room for creativity and imagination, because sticking to so-called “facts” and “logic” is both “limiting” and “boring.”

In his report, Senator Sessions has counted things like payments to hospitals, doctors and nursing homes—including for elderly end-of-life care and people with serious disabilities who are institutionalized—“as though these payments are akin to cash income that is going to poor families to live on,” says the CBPP. In fact, close to half of all the spending that Sessions counts as income to poor households “consists of payments to hospitals, doctors and other providers”; and the majority of that spending is for “the elderly or people with disabilities.” The people living in nursing homes and other long-care facilities aren’t actually counted by the US Census Bureau as members of poor households—and many of them were middle-income until their health expenses exhausted their savings—but for the purposes of the Sessions report, these expenditures are counted as tens of billions of dollars going to households below the poverty line.

It’s a burst of creativity that is downright inspiring—I like to close my eyes and imagine Sessions and his staff achieving it while blasting “The Ride of the Valkyries.”

You can also see Dumbledore-like wizardry with the senator’s assessment of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In 2011, 65 percent of the households receiving the EITC were above the poverty line. But Sessions “takes all means-tested assistance that goes to households above the poverty line and includes it in the spending total that it divides by the number of people below the poverty line,” according to the CBPP.

Sessions uses his Gangnam Style counting to draw the stop-the-presses, pitchfork-provoking conclusion that the benefits received by households below the poverty line—whether those households actually receive those benefits or not—raises their standard of living above that of the typical middle-income household.

The Old Guard CBPP—with all its dogmatic-about-data ways—insists that US Census Bureau data refutes the senator’s conclusion: “In 2011, the typical person in a family whose income was below the poverty line before means-tested benefits are counted remained 12 percent below the poverty line after the means-tested benefits are counted…[and] even with these benefits, the typical poor person’s standard of living is 57 percent below that of the typical middle-income American.”

Sure, if you want to be all autocratic and technocratic about it. But in the new DC—led by bon vivants like Sessions—limits and artificial walls fall by the wayside, new horizons are revealed, and—poof!—there actually is no poverty anymore.

I just wish Sessions had gone further: For example, what is the share of welfare payments to the poor in the form of monies received by defense contractors to build weapons systems designed to protect Americans—including poor Americans? If you think about it creatively, poor Americans are our least mobile and therefore most vulnerable citizens, so they actually consume a disproportionate amount of the defense budget. Same goes for Homeland Security, medical research, food inspection, wind energy, space exploration—because who wants to find another planet we could potentially inhabit more than poor people do?

Now, I do have one minor beef with the Sessions report and it’s this: I’m fairly certain that the only way they could pierce the steel-like matrix of so-called facts in order to discover this real reality that the rest of us have been missing is by being high. Sure, in this case, the getting-high cloud has a silver lining. But in my playbook, it’s a no-no even for purposes of groundbreaking creativity of Sessions-like proportions.

Let me be clear, I’m not judging the senator or his staff. They are victims of what I call the decay of the institution of integrity that began long before they arrived in Congress. What is needed at this moment in our history is a Temporary Assistance to Integrity-challenged Legislators (TAIL) program—modeled after the hugely-successful-until-Obama-meddled-with-it Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.

There will obviously need to be testing for Senator Sessions, his staff and other participants in the program in order to ensure that they are clean—otherwise, we can’t have our tax dollars going to support their salaries. And, of course, the senator and his staff will receive their salaries on debit cards—and they won’t be able to make withdrawals anywhere that sells liquor, or use the cards in restaurants that sell sugary drinks. But these are all no-brainers.

The real long-term challenge is how to repair the institution of integrity.

To do that, these people need to learn the value of integrity, which can’t be accomplished through their daily legislative work—that culture has the propensity to reinforce undesirable behaviors. Instead, they will need to perform thirty hours per week of Integrity Training. Allowable activities will include: reading and re-reading All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, taking an integrity training course offered by an accredited for-profit entity and reading the Sessions report aloud at community meetings in impoverished neighborhoods.

Sessions and his staff needn’t worry—the program will be as easy as one, two, three, or the equivalent mix-and-match of numbers that they use for counting Gangnam-Style.


Note: a previous version of this post incorrectly reported that Sen. Sessions asserts that we spend the equivalent of $68,000 per poor household annually.  It should have read that the Senator says we spend more than $60,000 per poor household annually–a figure, by the way, that is still completely absurd.

A Demos/The Nation Production

Thank you, Demos, for collaborating with The Nation and using my post on TANF to create another one of your stellar infographics. Please share this—people just don’t know enough about this program. (And for some deep reading on TANF, check out this Congressional testimony yesterday by CLASP’s Elizabeth Lower-Basch.)

Click to enlarge

Screening and Discussion of American Winter

I’m looking forward to attending a screening of a great documentary in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, and moderating the panel discussion afterwards.

American Winter follows the personal stories of families struggling over the winter of 2011–12, presenting an intimate portrait of how the nation’s economy is impacting the lives of low-income and middle-income families. It reveals the human costs of cuts to social services, the decline of the middle class and an American Dream that seems increasingly out of reach.

Following the film, there will be a panel discussion with policy experts and one of the film’s two producer/directors, Joe Gantz, as well as an audience Q&A. Additionally, we will be collecting nonperishable canned goods at the registration table, which will be donated to DC Central Kitchen.

The event is sponsored by Center for American Progress, The Nation, and the National Association of Social Workers. Here are the details—hope you can make it!

March 6, 2013, 6:30 pm–9 pm
Landmark E Street Cinema:
E Street between 10th and 11th Streets, NW, DC.
This screening is free and open to the public.
Space is extremely limited. RSVP required. 
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis and not guaranteed.
RSVP to attend this event.


Get involved

Ask President Obama and Congress to Implement a Plan to End Child Hunger by 2015

Tell Congress We Aren’t “Done With Revenue”

Tell Congress to Prevent Harmful Cuts Due to Start in March

Congress, What’s Your Plan to Protect Kids?


March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food: On Sunday, March 3, hundreds of farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their consumer allies from across the state and country will gather at Jesus Obrero Catholic Church in Ft. Myers, Florida, to begin a two-week, 200-mile march to Publix corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Florida. Marchers will be calling on the Florida-based grocery giant to honor the breakthrough social responsibility partnership for farm labor reform known as the Fair Food Program (FFP).

A Place at the Table

The acclaimed new documentary that shines a light on America’s hidden hunger crisis opens in theaters and becomes available for download today.

NYC Restaurant Workers Dance & Sing for a Wage Hike

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

A ‘Go Local’ Focus Is Used to Resolve Unpaid Wages,” Lizette Alvarez

Unemployment rates are projected to remain high for whites, Latinos, and African Americans throughout 2013,” Algernon Austin

How Should Louisville Engage Its Low-Income Residents in the Civic Process?” Matt Bevilacqua

National surveys ignore the incarcerated, and thus understate our racial inequality,” Steve Bogira

Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home,” Patricia Leigh Brown

Investing in Boys and Young Men of Color,” Center for Law and Social Policy

Locked Out of Jobs, Formerly Incarcerated Struggle to Reintegrate,” Michelle Chen

Poverty’s Prominent Role in Absenteeism,” Marc Cutillo

Study ties black-white wealth gap to stubborn disparities in real estate,” Michael Fletcher

More than One in Six Americans Report Inability to Afford Enough Food,” Food Research and Action Center

Florida’s Welfare Drug Testing Law Struck Down by Federal Appeals Court,” Seth Freed Wessler

Temporary Assistance for Families Should Empower Working-Class Parents, Not Serve as a Slush Fund for States,” Shawn Fremstad

What’s ‘Sequestration’ Mean in Real Life?” Imara Jones

Making the Whole City Your Bargaining Committee,” Barb Kucera

Testimony on Waiving Work Requirements in the TANF Program,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Child Care Advocates Question Finger Scans for Poor Parents Receiving Subsidies,” Kathy Mulady

The Politics of Wage Suppression: Inside ALEC’s Legislative Campaign Against Low-Paid Workers,” National Employment Law Project

Instead of Gray’s Raise D.C., Michelle Rhee’s book: Let’s take a truly radical approach to school reform,” Michael Shank

Searching for affordable housing in Anacostia: For some, that’s asking too much,” Michael Shank

Low-Income Victims of Domestic Violence Facing a Political Super Storm,” Erik Stegman and Katie Wright

Immigration Reform and the American Worker,” James Surowiecki

The Human Costs of Sequester,” Katrina vanden Heuvel

The Wage Theft Epidemic,” Spencer Woodman

Take Three: Raising the Minimum Wage Myths,” United States Department of Labor

Some Notable Studies (summaries written by James Cersonsky)

Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” Kids Count. Since 1995, the number of incarcerated youth has plummeted from 107,637 to 70,792. Still, the United States has a larger share of incarcerated youth than any other industrialized country—and only 25 percent are locked up for violent offenses. The report offers a variety of proposals to reform youth incarceration: limiting eligibility for getting locked up; investing in youth development as an alternative to incarceration; changing perverse financial incentives that encourage incarceration; and making youth detention facilities more humane.

Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life,” The Pew Charitable Trusts. School closings can pose grave social and economic hardship for students, teachers and communities. As this report shows, closings aren’t even as financially beneficial as districts often make them out to be. Districts have to pay for maintenance, security and insurance while they search for new tenants, keeping net operating savings below $1 million. They also face varied laws and regulations that complicate property sales. All told, sale prices for most shuttered schools fall between $200,000 and $1 million, often well below initial projections. The most frequent buyers? Charter schools, at 42 percent, which threaten to even further divert needed funding from school districts.

Creating Balance in the Locations of LIHTC Developments: The Role of Qualified Allocation Plans,” Poverty & Race Research Action Council. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, is a federal program that subsidizes housing projects for low-income households. This report asks: in deciding where to build new housing projects, how can policy-makers achieve balance between “high-opportunity” areas and places where the people who would live in the projects currently live? The authors offer a slate of proposals including: limit LIHTC developments to neighborhoods with more sustained revitalization efforts in place; limit incentives to fund preservation of existing affordable housing; and create incentives and rules to locate projects in “high-opportunity.”

The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro. Over the past twenty-five years, the “wealth gap” between white and black families has risen astronomically—from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009 (all measured in 2009 dollars). In this analysis using longitudinal data, the authors zero in on five major drivers of the gap: years of homeownership; household income; unemployment; educational attainment; and inheritance, financial support from family or friends and preexisting wealth. “It is time for a portfolio shift in public investment to grow wealth for all, not just a tiny minority,” they argue. “A healthy, fair, and equitable society cannot continue to follow such an economically unsustainable trajectory.”

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Households with children in large cities that are food-insecure: 25 percent.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

People experiencing homelessness on any given night, US: 643,067.

Children living on streets or in homeless shelters, US: 1.6 million, 42 percent under age six.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Quote of the Week:

“My personal take is that it’s about creating the political will—the politicians are our representatives, so it finally gets down to your personal will: what are you willing to do when you’re made aware of the problem? Look into your own souls and ask what can I lend to this? What’s something I can do and sustain until the job gets done?”
      —Actor Jeff Bridges on ending child hunger

James Cersonsky wrote the “Notable studies” summaries and co-wrote the “Clips” section in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at and follow me on Twitter.