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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms April 10, 2012

David Dewhurst says poverty ranks up by 6.4 million under Obama

In an online video suggesting that President Barack Obama plays golf while Americans suffer, U.S. Senate candidate David Dewhurst highlights the increase in the number of people living in poverty since Obama took office.

The ad from the Texas lieutenant governor shows video of Obama golfing or riding a golf cart along with snippets of others speaking about the nation’s economic troubles. The video culminates with these claims, which appear in red letters: "6.4 million more Americans living in poverty under President Obama" and "over 90 rounds of golf."

We’ve already checked the sporty part of that claim, rating as True the statement that Obama has played more than 90 rounds of golf since he became president. Here, we’ll focus on Dewhurst’s claim that the ranks of the poor have grown by 6.4 million.

As backup, Dewhurst’s campaign sent us a January 2012 editorial from the conservative Washington Examiner that says "there are 6.4 million more Americans in poverty today than when Obama took office."

Dewhurst’s campaign also pointed us to a page from the website of the Senate Republican Conference, which consists of Republican members of the U.S. Senate. The page — dated April 2, 2012, and titled "He’s Made it Worse: The Obama Economic Record" — is presented as a comparison of conditions when Obama became president and "today" according to statistics such as the unemployment rate and the size of the federal debt.

Under "Americans in Poverty," the page says there were 39.8 million on Obama’s inauguration day (Jan. 20, 2009) and are 46.2 million "today." The difference: 6.4 million people.

The page does not give a source for the poverty numbers, so we turned to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is the official federal source of poverty statistics. The bureau uses a measure of poverty called the "poverty thresholds" to help determine the number of U.S. residents living in poverty. If a family has an income below the relevant threshold, then the members of that family are considered to be living in poverty.

The bureau’s thresholds, which are adjusted annually for inflation, vary by family size. For example, the preliminary figures for 2011, which are the most recent thresholds, show that a family of four people would be considered to be living in poverty if it earned less than $23,018 through the year. Alternatively, the 2011 threshold for single people younger than 65 is $11,702.

The bureau’s thresholds are different from the poverty guidelines overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which are used to determine if applicants are eligible for government assistance programs.

Census Bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein told us that the bureau estimates the number of U.S. residents living in poverty on an annual basis. The figure is based on a survey of a scientifically selected sample of about 100,000 households that takes place between February and April each year.

The survey asks respondents their income for the previous year. And from the survey results, the bureau extrapolates the number of U.S. residents that were living in poverty that year.

The 2010 poverty statistics were released in September 2011. The next estimate of the number of U.S. residents living in poverty, for 2011, is scheduled for release in September 2012.

We should note that there have long been concerns about the bureau’s measure, which determines a person or family’s poverty status based on before-tax cash income. One of the primary identified weaknesses with this method is that it does not take into account government policies or benefits that can shrink a family’s income (such as payroll taxes) or enhance it (such as food stamps). Another criticism: The thresholds are not adjusted to account for variations in the cost of living in different places.

We checked the bureau’s poverty figures to compare with the Senate Republican Conference’s data and found that the group was comparing the number of Americans in poverty in 2008 to the number in 2010. In other words, the Senate group used the bureau’s 2008 statistic — 39.8 million — for the number of people in poverty on Obama’s inauguration day in January 2009. And it used the 2010 statistic — 46.2 million, the most recent — for its count of poor Americans in April 2012.

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The bureau data show that the estimated number of U.S. residents in poverty in 2010, Obama’s second year in office, was greater by 6.4 million than it was in 2008, George W. Bush’s final full year in office. The largest increase came in 2009, Obama’s first year in office, when the poverty total was 3.8 million higher than the year before. In 2010, the number was 2.6 million greater than the 2009 level.

The 46.2 million residents in poverty in 2010 amounted to the greatest number of Americans in the low-income category since the government started tracking the statistic in 1959.

But the recent increase did not start on Obama’s watch. The number of Americans living in poverty, by the bureau’s measure, first creeped up in 2007, when 800,000 more people were in poverty than the year before. The subsequent 2008 increase: 2.5 million people.

In fact, during Bush’s eight years as president, the estimated number of Americans in poverty rose every year but two. We applied the Dewhurst campaign’s methodology to the Bush years, comparing the number of people in poverty the year before Bush took office (2000) with the number during his last full year in office (2008). We found an increase of 8.2 million people.

In making such comparisons, though, there is another, better way to judge change.

As PolitiFact noted in a previous fact-check, because of population growth, it’s important to notice shifts in the share of all residents in poverty. And during the years Dewhurst focused on, the portion of U.S. residents in poverty increased, although like the estimated number of people in poverty, the climb began in 2007. The figures:

** 2006: 12.3 percent
** 2007: 12.5 percent (0.2 percentage point increase)
** 2008: 13.2 percent (0.7 percentage point increase)
** 2009: 14.3 percent (1.1 percentage point increase)
** 2010: 15.1 percent (0.8 percentage point increase)

The 2010 poverty rate of 15.1 percent was higher than that of every year for more than four decades, save two — 1983, when the rate was 15.2 percent, and 1993, when it was the same as the 2010 figure, 15.1 percent.

A September 2011 New York Times news article about the 2010 poverty statistics said economists pointed to joblessness associated with the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent recession as the main factor pushing more Americans into poverty.

A final note: Dewhurst implies that Obama is to blame for the rising number of people in poverty.

But our sense is that it’s unfair to place all the responsibility in the president’s lap. The economic downturn began before Obama took office. Also, poverty experts such as Sheldon Danziger, director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, say that more Americans would have been forced into poverty without the 2009 federal stimulus plan, championed by Obama, which included billions of dollars for programs that help low-income Americans such as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. More broadly, no single official controls the number of Americans living in poverty.

Our ruling

Dewhurst’s figures draw from a reliable source on Americans in poverty in 2010 — which, of course, is not 2012 — compared with 2008, the year before Obama became president.

A better understanding of the extent of U.S. poverty lies in looking at the share of Americans in dire straits. That measure also supports Dewhurst’s point — that poverty has increased during Obama’s term. Then again, the percentage of residents in poverty had begun to grow in 2007, two years before Obama’s first in office.

Finally, it’s a reach to say Obama is personally to blame for the increase in poverty.

On balance, we rate Dewhurst’s statement Half True.

Our Sources

David Dewhurst campaign for U.S. Senate, online video, "90 rounds," April 4, 2012

Washington Examiner, editorial, "Obama forgets his first two years in State of the Union address," January 2012

Senate Republican Conference, web page, "He’s Made It Worse: The Obama Economic Record," April 2, 2012

U.S. Census Bureau, web page, "How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty" (accessed April 5, 2012)

U.S. Census Bureau, web page, "Poverty thresholds" (accessed April 5, 2012)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, web page, "2012 HHS poverty guidelines" (accessed April 5, 2012)

Interview with Robert Bernstein, spokesman, U.S. Census Bureau, April 5, 2012

U.S. Census Bureau, report, "The Research: Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2010," November 2011

U.S. Census Bureau, spreadsheet, "Poverty status of people by family relationship, race and Hispanic origin: 1959 to 2010" (accessed April 5, 2012)

New York Times, news article, "Soaring poverty casts spotlight on ‘lost decade,’" Sept. 13, 2011

Interview with Sheldon Danziger, director, National Poverty Center, University of Michigan, April 5, 2012

Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, report, "At Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession," January 2012

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David Dewhurst says poverty ranks up by 6.4 million under Obama

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