More About Arloc Sherman

Arloc Sherman

Sherman is a Senior Researcher focusing on family income trends, income support policies, and the causes and consequences of poverty.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at CBPP.org


5 Facts to Help You Understand Next Week’s Poverty Figures

September 12, 2014 at 9:51 am

Our new report provides context for the official poverty and income figures for 2013, which the Census Bureau will release on Tuesday.  Here are the highlights:

  1. As in other recent recoveries, poverty has been slow to decline.  Over time, poverty rates tend to move roughly in tandem with economic indicators, which generally improved slightly in 2013.  Thus, the poverty rate — which jumped from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15.1 percent in 2010 and remained essentially unchanged at 15.0 percent in 2011 and 2012 — may start to improve in 2013 as well, although the improvement might not be statistically significant.A return to pre-recession poverty levels is unlikely soon.  To replace the millions of jobs lost in the Great Recession anytime soon and keep up with population growth, the economy must create jobs faster than it has to date.  Although the economic recovery (which officially began in June 2009) is not uniquely disappointing in this regard, it is still problematic — and because the economic downturn was so deep, there is much more ground to make up.  Recoveries in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s featured quicker reductions in poverty (see graph).
  1. Austerity policies likely hampered progress against poverty in 2013.  The economy almost certainly would have improved more in 2013 had austerity policies not reduced the government’s contribution to the economy.  These included the “sequestration” spending cuts of the 2011 Budget Control Act and first implemented in 2013 and the expiration of the payroll tax holiday, which reduced most workers’ take-home pay by 2 percent of earnings.
  2. Unequal wage growth also slowed progress.  Between 2009 and 2013, inflation-adjusted hourly wages rose by 1 percent for workers at the 95th percentile (workers whose wage levels exceed those of 95 percent of all workers but are less than the remaining 5 percent), but fell by about 4 to 6 percent for workers in the bottom 60 percent of the wage scale, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
  3. Income inequality tied a record-high level in 2012.  The income gap between rich and poor as measured by the Gini index — the Census Bureau’s main summary indicator of inequality in pre-tax cash income — tied a record in 2012, with the data going back to 1967.  Other inequality measures also stood at or near record levels in 2012.
  4. Most poverty figures released on Tuesday won’t reflect non-cash benefits.  The Census figures will focus on the official poverty statistics, which are based on pre-tax cash income and omit support such as food assistance and rental subsidies as well as tax-based assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  An alternative Census Bureau poverty measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), includes these types of assistance, and experts generally consider it a more reliable tool for measuring changes in poverty over time as well as the safety net’s impact on poverty.  Unfortunately, Census will not release SPM figures for 2013 until later this year.  However, Census will release a table on Tuesday providing data on the poverty-reducing effects of certain programs, including SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the EITC.

Click here for the full report.

Fewer Poor Children Under Welfare Law, But More Very Poor Children

July 23, 2014 at 3:02 pm

There are fewer poor children in America but more very poor children since policymakers dramatically shifted low-income assistance from non-working families to working families in the mid-1990s, our new report explains.

We estimate that the share of children in deep poverty — with family income below half of the poverty line — rose from 2.1 percent to 3.0 percent between 1995 and 2005, after correcting for households’ underreporting of safety net benefits in Census surveys (see graph).  The number of children in deep poverty climbed from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.

These findings are consistent with other research, such as a study finding a significant rise in the number of households with children with monthly cash incomes equivalent to less than $2 per person per day — a standard of poverty more associated with developing countries.

The 1996 welfare law replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had chiefly served families with little or no earnings, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which offers less assistance and includes stricter work requirements and time limits.  At the same time, policymakers expanded assistance for moderate-income working families, such as by strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and medical and child care programs and creating and later expanding the Child Tax Credit.

Some data sources don’t show a rise in deep poverty for children, but this appears to reflect their omission of a large share of the income from key public benefit programs.  Correcting for this underreporting reduces the deep poverty rate in any given year but reveals the increase in deep poverty over the decade as income from these programs — particularly public assistance (AFDC/TANF) — shrank.

Public assistance kept 2.4 million children out of deep poverty in 1995 but only about 600,000 children in 2005, after correcting for underreporting.

Policymakers need to take account of the significant rise in deep poverty among children as they consider proposals affecting support for poor families, including the poorest families with children.

Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Government Benefits

July 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Some Washington policymakers are increasingly focused on whether government benefits for low- and moderate-income people create disincentives to work — in particular, when these benefits phase down as the earnings of beneficiaries rise, our new commentary notes.  That phase-down rate is often called the “marginal tax rate” because it resembles a tax — benefits fall as earnings rise.  As we explain:

[P]olicymakers across the ideological spectrum share concerns about marginal tax rates and agree that, all else being equal, lower marginal tax rates are preferable to higher ones.  Unfortunately, all else is not equal, and lowering marginal tax rates entails significant and very challenging policy trade-offs. . . .

[M]arginal tax rates are the product not of bad policy design but rather of competing policy goals:  providing needed assistance to financially struggling individuals and families and limiting costs by not providing help to those with more adequate income.  Any serious discussion of the marginal tax rate issue must grapple with the fundamental tension between limiting assistance, controlling costs, and reducing marginal tax rates.

No such serious discussion is likely to result, however, from exaggeration of the marginal tax rates that most low-income families face, overstatement of the impact those marginal rates have on actual work behavior by low-income households, or glossing over the tough policy trade-offs that policymakers must face when seeking to reduce marginal rates.

Click here for the full commentary.

House Cuts in Census Funding Would Carry a Heavy Cost

June 3, 2014 at 12:01 pm

The House voted shortsightedly to cut $238 million from the Census Bureau’s budget for fiscal year 2015 relative to the President’s request.  Although the House funding level is $28.5 million more than last year’s Census budget, it’s far from enough to cover the cost of preparing for the 2020 census and the closely related annual American Community Survey (ACS).  The Senate, which will prepare its own bill this week, should give Census the needed funding to provide high-quality data on which policymakers and private businesses can depend.

In a barrage of amendments to the Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill, House members shifted funding last week from Census to pay for projects ranging from policing to weather research.  The cuts threaten the accuracy of the 2020 census, which will help determine the apportionment of congressional seats and drive redistricting decisions.

They also threaten the accuracy of the ACS, the nation’s main source of state and local data on affordable housing, household income, poverty, race, state-to-state migration, immigration, types of disabilities of local residents, and scores of other major topics.  The federal government uses ACS data to distribute more than $400 billion in federal formula funds each year, and the information helps communities and businesses decide where to build new roads, bridges, schools, homes, and stores.

The bill could prove costly to taxpayers in the long run by delaying adoption of innovative cost-saving steps such as online data collection, which could save $5 billion or more over ten years, according to the Census Bureau.

It could prove shortsighted in other ways as well, such as by weakening the quality of the information that helps inform policymaking.  For example, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program — the biggest beneficiary of the House funding shuffle — requires law enforcement agencies applying for grants to submit data from the ACS.  Presumably that’s because policymakers believe that ACS data keep the program well targeted, but they can’t do that job as effectively if underfunding weakens the survey’s quality.

Further, a proposal by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) that the House adopted takes another swipe at the ACS by making responding to the ACS “voluntary” for households.  A similar move by Canada in 2011 proved disastrous:  response rates plummeted from 94 percent to 68 percent, severely damaging data quality while raising costs, according to The Census Project.  Decades of experience show that a mandatory survey — regardless of whether it’s enforced with stiff penalties (which the requirement to fill out Census forms is not) — has far higher response rates and thus yields far more accurate data at lower cost. 

The House cuts come at a time when other areas of the Census budget are already tight.  Census is redesigning its Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to save money and reduce respondents’ burdens, for example, but that redesign effort is running into problems and the savings probably won’t appear as soon as earlier predicted.  Compromising the quality of Census data through severe underfunding would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Improving the Odds for America’s Children

April 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm

The safety net has been more effective than critics suggest, the Center’s Robert Greenstein, Sharon Parrott, and I explain in a chapter for Improving the Odds for America’s Children, which Harvard Education Press has just published.

For our chapter, we reviewed the last 40 years of anti-poverty policies for children and offered ideas for future decades.

Here’s some of what we found, and some of what we proposed:

Household incomes have risen since 1973 for the poorest fifth of children if you include the value of non-cash benefits, as most experts favor (the official poverty figures omit them).  If you eliminated the safety net today, another 9 million children would fall into poverty.

Also, studies show that income from safety-net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (ETIC) and SNAP (formerly food stamps) has a powerful effect on children’s long-term success, in school and beyond.

Yet poverty and hardship continue to stunt many children’s futures.  To help families obtain incomes that are adequate to raise successful children, we recommend steps in three core areas:

  • Jobs:  Creating a funding stream similar to the successful TANF Emergency Fund — through which states placed more than 260,000 low-income adults and youth in paid jobs during the Great Recession — but one that was permanent and expanded in an economic downturn.
  • Income support:  For example, expanding housing vouchers (and making it easier for people with vouchers to move to neighborhoods with more jobs and better schools), while preserving recent improvements in the Child Tax Credit and EITC.
  • Support for work and higher earnings:  For example, raising the minimum wage and providing more funding for job training and child care assistance.

Other chapters provide analysis and policy ideas from noted experts such as Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane (on inequality), Sara Rosenbaum (health care), Deborah Jewell-Sherman (education), Jane Waldfogel and Michael Wald (child protection and family support), Joan Lombardi (child care), and others.