Thursday's annual Census Bureau report on income, poverty and access to health care-the Bureau's principal report card on the well-being of average Americans-closes the books on the economic record of George W. Bush.
It's not a record many Republicans are likely to point to with pride.
On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.
The Census' final report card on Bush's record
presents an intriguing backdrop to today's economic debate. Bush built
his economic strategy around tax cuts, passing large reductions both in
2001 and 2003. Congressional Republicans are insisting that a similar
agenda focused on tax cuts offers better prospects of reviving the
economy than President Obama's combination of some tax cuts with heavy
government spending. But the bleak economic results from Bush's two
terms, tarnish, to put it mildly, the idea that tax cuts represent an
economic silver bullet.
Economists would cite
many reasons why presidential terms are an imperfect frame for tracking
economic trends. The business cycle doesn't always follow the electoral
cycle. A president's economic record is heavily influenced by factors
out of his control. Timing matters and so does good fortune.
few would argue that national economic policy is irrelevant to economic
outcomes. And rightly or wrongly, voters still judge presidents and
their parties largely by the economy's performance during their watch.
In that assessment, few measures do more than the Census data to answer
the threshold question of whether a president left the day to day
economic conditions of average Americans better than he found it.
that's the test, today's report shows that Bush flunked on every
relevant dimension-and not just because of the severe downturn that
began last year.
Consider first the median
income. When Bill Clinton left office after 2000, the median income-the
income line around which half of households come in above, and half
fall below-stood at $52,500 (measured in inflation-adjusted 2008
dollars). When Bush left office after 2008, the median income had
fallen to $50,303. That's a decline of 4.2 per cent.
leaves Bush with the dubious distinction of becoming the only president
in recent history to preside over an income decline through two
presidential terms, notes Lawrence Mishel, president of the
left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The median household income
increased during the two terms of Clinton (by 14 per cent, as we'll see
in more detail below), Ronald Reagan (8.1 per cent), and Richard Nixon
and Gerald Ford (3.9 per cent). As Mishel notes, although the global
recession decidedly deepened the hole-the percentage decline in the
median income from 2007 to 2008 is the largest single year fall on
record-average families were already worse off in 2007 than they were
in 2000, a remarkable result through an entire business expansion.
"What is phenomenal about the years under Bush is that through the
entire business cycle from 2000 through 2007, even before this
recession...working families were worse off at the end of the recovery,
in the best of times during that period, than they were in 2000 before
he took office," Mishel says.
Bush's record on poverty is
equally bleak. When Clinton left office in 2000, the Census counted
almost 31.6 million Americans living in poverty. When Bush left office
in 2008, the number of poor Americans had jumped to 39.8 million (the
largest number in absolute terms since 1960.) Under Bush, the number of
people in poverty increased by over 8.2 million, or 26.1 per cent. Over
two-thirds of that increase occurred before the economic collapse of
The trends were comparably daunting for
children in poverty. When Clinton left office nearly 11.6 million
children lived in poverty, according to the Census. When Bush left
office that number had swelled to just under 14.1 million, an increase
of more than 21 per cent.
The story is similar
again for access to health care. When Clinton left office, the number
of uninsured Americans stood at 38.4 million. By the time Bush left
office that number had grown to just over 46.3 million, an increase of
nearly 8 million or 20.6 per cent.
look the same when examining shares of the population that are poor or
uninsured, rather than the absolute numbers in those groups. When
Clinton left office in 2000 13.7 per cent of Americans were uninsured;
when Bush left that number stood at 15.4 per cent. (Under Bush, the
share of Americans who received health insurance through their employer
declined every year of his presidency-from 64.2 per cent in 2000 to
58.5 per cent in 2008.)
When Clinton left the
number of Americans in poverty stood at 11.3 per cent; when Bush left
that had increased to 13.2 per cent. The poverty rate for children
jumped from 16.2 per cent when Clinton left office to 19 per cent when
Bush stepped down.
Every one of those
measurements had moved in a positive direction under Clinton. The
median income increased from $46,603 when George H.W. Bush left office
in 1992 to $52,500 when Clinton left in 2000-an increase of 14 per
cent. The number of Americans in poverty declined from 38 million when
the elder Bush left office in 1992 to 31.6 million when Clinton stepped
down-a decline of 6.4 million or 16.9 per cent. Not since the go-go
years of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations during
the 1960s, which coincided with the launch of the Great Society, had
the number of poor Americans declined as much over two presidential
The number of children in poverty
plummeted from 15.3 million when H.W. Bush left office in 1992 to 11.6
million when Clinton stepped down in 2000-a stunning decline of 24 per
cent. (That was partly because welfare reform forced single mothers
into the workforce at the precise moment they could take advantage of a
growing economy. The percentage of female-headed households in poverty
stunningly dropped from 39 per cent in 1992 to 28.5 per cent in 2000,
still the lowest level for that group the Census has ever recorded.
That number has now drifted back up to over 31 per cent.) The number of
Americans without health insurance remained essentially stable during
Clinton's tenure, declining from 38.6 million when the elder Bush
stepped down in 1992 to 38.4 million in 2000.
at the trends by shares of the population, rather than absolute
numbers, reinforces the story: The overall poverty rate and the poverty
rate among children both declined sharply under Clinton, and the share
of Americans without health insurance fell more modestly.
So the summary page on the economic experience of average Americans under the past two presidents would look like this:
Under Clinton, the median income increased 14 per cent. Under Bush it declined 4.2 per cent.
Under Clinton the total number of Americans in poverty declined 16.9 per cent; under Bush it increased 26.1 per cent.
Under Clinton the number of children in poverty declined 24.2 per cent; under Bush it increased by 21.4 per cent.
Clinton, the number of Americans without health insurance, remained
essentially even (down six-tenths of one per cent); under Bush it
increased by 20.6 per cent.
Adding Ronald Reagan's record to the comparison fills in the picture from another angle.
Reagan, the median income grew, in contrast to both Bush the younger
and Bush the elder. (The median income declined 3.2 per cent during the
elder Bush's single term.) When Reagan was done, the median income
stood at $47, 614 (again in constant 2008 dollars), 8.1 per cent higher
than when Jimmy Carter left office in 1980.
despite that income growth, both overall and childhood poverty were
higher when Reagan rode off into the sunset than when he arrived. The
number of poor Americans increased from 29.3 million in 1980 to 31.7
million in 1988, an increase of 8.4 per cent. The number of children in
poverty trended up from 11.5 million when Carter left to 12.5 million
when Reagan stepped down, a comparable increase of 7.9 per cent. The
total share of Americans in poverty didn't change over Reagan's eight
years (at 13 per cent), but the share of children in poverty actually
increased (from 18.3 to 19.5 per cent) despite the median income gains.
The past rarely settles debates about the future.
fact that the economy performed significantly better for average
families under Clinton than under the elder or younger Bush or Ronald
Reagan doesn't conclusively answer how the country should proceed now.
Obama isn't replicating the Clinton economic strategy (which increased
federal spending in areas like education and research much more
modestly, and placed greater emphasis on deficit reduction-to the point
of increasing taxes in his first term). Nor has anyone suggested that
it would make sense to reprise that approach in today's conditions. But
at the least, the wretched two-term record compiled by the younger Bush
on income, poverty and access to health care should compel Republicans
to answer a straightforward question: if tax cuts are truly the best
means to stimulate broadly shared prosperity, why did the Bush years
yield such disastrous results for American families on these core
measures of economic well being?
--National Journal researcher Cameron Joseph contributed.