A new study suggests that programs like food stamps and housing vouchers cut poverty by almost twice as much as we thought they did.
According to standard census numbers, the poverty rate in New York from 2008 to 2011 was 13.6 percent, before taking these programs into account. The programs the study examines — food stamps (a.k.a. SNAP), welfare (a.k.a. TANF), state-level general assistance programs, and housing aid — dropped that down to 10.8 percent. But the study suggests the real number was even lower: a mere 8.3 percent. If that's true, then the estimated poverty-fighting power of these programs has been dramatically understated for years.
People really don't like telling the census they get government help
The official data on poverty comes from the Current Population Survey's (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), a yearly survey that reaches about 100,000 addresses and yields detailed information on household incomes, education levels, health insurance, and use of government assistance programs. In theory, it should tell us everything we need to know. But all surveys come with a risk of error, and ASEC, in particular, has been getting worse in recent years. Fewer people in the sample fill it out, and fewer people who fill out some of it fill out the income portion. This means it misses a lot of money people are receiving from the government. "The underreporting of income from government programs is a problem that is well-known in the CPS, and which has grown over time," Christopher Wimer, a poverty researcher at Columbia and lead author of a landmark 2013 paper on the war on poverty, writes in an email.