Yesterday, the revelation that poverty had reached 15.1 percent in 2010 (poverty figures refer to the year prior to their release) got a lot of attention, but, seen in context, it wasn’t really a big deal. The official poverty percentage hit its low in 1972 at 11.1 percent and since then has moved within a narrow range, hitting a high of 15.2 percent in 1982.
Compared those wiggles in the graph of poverty with this headline: “POVERTY HALVED. Drops 20 Percentage Points in Just Twelve Years.” That’s what happened from 1949 to 1961. We didn’t know it at the time, but the numbers have been calculated retrospectively, using the 1950 census to determine the poverty rate in 1949—it was 41 percent. In President Kennedy’s first year in office, 1961, it was 21 percent. And what was going on in between? Oh, yes. Those boring, complacent Eisenhower years, when the government didn’t try to help the poor. Unlike now.