The 2024 election is unusual for many reasons, not the least of which is that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have records as president. On issues of poverty and opportunity, the poverty rates during their terms in office allow contrasts and comparison.  

The Census Bureau's official poverty measure (OPM) for 2016, the year in which Donald Trump was elected, was 12.7 percent. By 2019, the last reporting year before the onset of the COVID pandemic, the OPM had fallen by nearly one-fifth, to just 10.5 percent. That’s the lowest rate since the federal government started measuring poverty in 1956. Using the somewhat more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), poverty declined from 14 to 11.7 percent over that same period, again a consequential drop of over fifteen percent. Roughly 6.6 million Americans left the poverty rolls during those three years, cutting across all demographic groups. In fact, the poverty rates for women, families, African Americans and Latinos all hit record lows.

However, during the final year of the Trump administration, the OPM crept back up to 11.4 percent, driven by the economic consequences of COVID, including closing down large swaths of the economy. The SPM, on the other hand, continued to decline to 9.1 percent as the government began to pay out large amounts of relief aid. 

Because of time lags in compiling and releasing Census Bureau reports, we have only two years of complete data for the Biden administration. Over that limited period, the OPM had been essentially flat, roughly what it was when he took office. The SPM, on the other hand, dipped as low as 7.8 percent, due to a massive infusion of government pandemic payments, before rising back to 12.4 percent in 2022, once those temporary programs began to expire. 

The surface numbers suggest that the Trump administration outperformed Biden in reducing poverty, at least before the onset of COVID.  

However, there are a few caveats to consider before closing the case. First, the decline in poverty rates began before Trump was elected, as far back as 2012 by some measures. The reduction in poverty may have been the result of long-term economic trends as much as any specific policies pursued by the Trump administration. 

Second, poverty rates were heavily influenced by fluctuations in the government’s response to the COVID pandemic. Mandatory shutdowns slowed the economy and reduced employment and, at the same time, federal and state governments spent trillions of dollars on myriad benefits and subsidies—more than $4.3 trillion in 2020 and 2021—although not all of those funds went to low-income individuals. Many programs were temporary, causing a jump in poverty when they expired under the Biden administration. For example, nearly the entire rise in poverty under the SPM in 2022 came from the expiration of the temporarily expanded portion of the Child Tax Credit.  

Finally, the ways in which the government measures poverty focus heavily on income, telling policymakers little about the opportunity that low-income Americans have to escape poverty over the long-term. The underlying dynamic of our welfare state today is to provide some degree of comfort and relieve some of the material deprivation that is part of an impoverished existence. That may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient. The purpose of social welfare programs should be more than simply making poverty less miserable, itshould be to empower people to rise above poverty. 

Yet, neither candidate appears to see welfare as more than a maintenance program. With that in mind, my next post will take a look at the programmatic changes and policy reforms that both presidents proposed or enacted during their time in office. and ask whether they represent a change in the way we pursue economic mobility.