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The Year Ahead 2019

How American Poverty Became “Fake News”

There are more “globally poor” people in the US than in Sierra Leone or Nepal, and the poverty rates in the US and China are similar, despite the more than threefold difference in per capita income. Unfortunately, as in so many areas, here, too, President Donald Trump’s administration is embracing alternative facts.

PRINCETON – Under the administration of the incontinently mendacious President Donald J. Trump, everyone should worry about the integrity of America’s official statistics. They should worry about much more under Trump, particularly the fate of democracy in the United States. But without credible official data, there can be no genuine accountability – and thus no democracy.

Consider the Trump administration’s reporting on poverty in the US. It seems that the baseline numbers produced by the US Census Bureau are (so far) intact, but there has been a flurry of misinterpretations that go beyond the usual partisan spin.

Commentators on the right like to quote Ronald Reagan’s 1988 claim that in the War on Poverty, declared by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, poverty won. That claim, perennially used as a cudgel to beat the social safety net that was expanded under Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, is consistent with official poverty estimates, the methodology of which has not been updated since the 1960s.

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