Subject: Closing the Book on The Bush Legacy
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
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.
But few would argue that national economic policy is irrelevant to
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.
If 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
That 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
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
"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
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
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.
The trends 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
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
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.
Looking 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.
Under 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
Adding Ronald Reagan's record to the comparison fills in the picture
from another angle.
Under 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.
But 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.
The 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
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