Mona Charen

The poverty rate in the United States, reports the Census Bureau, increased to 14.3 percent last year, up from 13.2 percent in 2008, bringing the number of Americans living in poverty to its highest levels since 1994. This is not the change on which Obama voters were counting.

The numbers, while distressing, require some elaboration, though, because poverty in America isn't what it used to be. They also raise an interesting question, on which, more in a minute.

First, the numbers. The official calculation of the 2009 poverty rate was income below $11,161 for an individual, or below $21,756 for a family of four. But these benchmarks do not include government benefits ranging from housing subsidies, food stamps, Medicaid, fuel assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or welfare. Further, poverty is a relative thing. As the American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt noted in 2008, "In 1973, almost three-fifths of the households in the lowest income quintile lacked a car. In 2003, by contrast, over three-fifths of poverty-level households owned one or more cars. ... Trends in furnishings and appurtenances tell the same story: poor households' possession of modern conveniences has been growing rapidly. For many of these items -- telephones, television sets, central air conditioning, and microwave ovens -- prevalence in poverty-level households in 2001 exceeded that of median-income households in 1980."

Clearly though, an increase in poverty -- however far removed from the desperation and hunger that characterized poverty during the Great Depression -- is a wretched thing. The increase in poverty among children under age 6, for example, jumped from 21.3 percent in 2008 to 23.8 in 2009.

Here is a curious thing about that increasing poverty, though -- and it's something that has received very little press attention: It has not resulted in a higher crime rate. In fact, according to the FBI, even as unemployment was spiking during 2009, the rate of murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults declined by 4.4 percent compared with the previous year. As even the Washington Post acknowledged, the conventional wisdom for many decades has been that "economic trouble breeds lawlessness."

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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