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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Slow to Define His Candidacy, Gore Attacked From Right and Left Alike

October 30, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Like Bill Bradley before him, Ralph Nader doesn't think President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have done enough to help the poor. "The cruel truth," Nader declared last week, "is that few of the benefits of a booming stock market and good economic times at the top have trickled down to millions of American families."

That's a common complaint from liberals--perhaps the left's core critique against Clinton and Gore. Bradley aggressively made that case in his challenge to Gore for the presidential nomination during the Democratic primaries. Nader is reprising it in his surprisingly effective bid as the Green Party's presidential candidate. To many on the left, it stands as proof that Clinton and Gore, in pursuit of suburban and upscale voters, have abandoned their party's historic commitment to uplifting the needy.

There's only one problem with the argument: It's unambiguously wrong.

The poor are indeed still with us. But after eight years of Clinton's presidency, there are significantly fewer of them. Under Clinton, the number of Americans in poverty has fallen more rapidly than at any time since the boom years of the late 1960s.

Families, Kids Fare Better

From any angle, Census Bureau numbers show unmistakable progress. From 1993 through 1999 (the latest year for which figures are available), the number of Americans living in poverty dropped by more than 7 million--from 15.1% of the population to just less than 12%. That's a 22% decline--enough to shrink the overall poverty rate to the lowest level since 1979.

Among children, a central focus for Bradley and Nader, the poverty rate has fallen even faster. It now stands at 16.9%, down from nearly 23% when Clinton took office. That's a decline of more than one-fourth--and also the lowest rate since 1979.

Even among families where a single woman is raising children, the poverty rate is plummeting. Nader backers such as author Barbara Ehrenreich cite as one reason for supporting him "the increasingly ugly fallout from the changes in welfare." But by moving millions of women from dependency into the work force, welfare reform has significantly contributed to the reduction of poverty. Since 1993, the poverty rate among families headed by single women has dropped by more than one-fifth--to about 30%. That's still too high, but it is by far the lowest level ever recorded.

All of these numbers are calculated before government benefits are figured in. But in 1993, Clinton won a major increase in the earned-income tax credit, which provides tax subsidies to the working poor. When benefits from the credit and other government programs such as food stamps are added--and the cost of state and federal taxes are subtracted--the share of Americans in poverty shrinks to just 9.4% of the population, the Census Bureau calculates. Under that definition, the poverty rate among children is down to 12%--a drop of more than one-third since Clinton was inaugurated.

Can more be done? Sure, especially for the working poor. But, again like Bradley, Nader doesn't give Clinton and Gore enough credit for what they've already accomplished--mostly over the resistance of Republicans in Congress.

Apart from the massive increase in the earned-income tax credit, Clinton also won a hike in the minimum wage in 1996, which was not something the new Republican congressional majority expected to be enacting when it took power a year earlier. In 1997, Clinton signed into law the children's health insurance program, known as CHIP, which provides coverage for uninsured children of the working poor. Through dogged budget negotiations, he also has nearly doubled federal child care subsidies for low-income families. Far from the headlines, these are achievements that tangibly change lives.

And Gore has proposed important steps to further bolster the working poor. Gore says he would make all children eligible for CHIP, and for the first time, cover working-poor parents under the program. He's proposed to increase the minimum wage, enlarge the earned-income tax credit again and make the tax credit for child-care costs available to more low-income families. He would increase access to child care by providing states grants to vastly expand the availability of preschool and by subsidizing after-school programs. That may not add up to the Great Society, but it's hardly benign neglect either.

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