David Barton Wildly Distorts Key Poverty Statistic

by Dan Quinn

How do lower- and working-class Americans get duped into supporting right-wing public policies that do them economic harm? They listen to phony “experts” like David Barton — a former Texas Republican Party vice chairman and the head of the religious-right organization WallBuilders.

Barton pretends to be a respected scholar of American history, but his grasp of facts is about as pitifully weak as his fealty to telling the truth. Consider, for example, Barton’s speech at a Texas Eagle Forum event during the Texas Republican Party convention in Fort Worth last month. Texas Eagle Forum’s July newsletter includes excerpts from that speech, including Barton’s suggestion that poor Americans really aren’t poor:

“Those deemed below the poverty level in the U.S. have a telephone, TV, car, eat more red meat and live in more square footage than the middle class of Europe. The poverty level for the U.S. is $40,000 annually, while in the rest of the world, it is below $456. That is why people want to come to America and live in poverty!”

Of course, people don’t come to America to live in poverty. Barton’s claim is a dog whistle for those on the right who argue that immigrants come to the United States to get access to welfare programs. But immigrants come to the United States seeking what other immigrants have sought throughout our history: liberty and the chance to find work that makes their lives better.

Even more outrageous, though, is Barton’s wild distortion of the statistics comparing poverty levels.

His claim regarding the international poverty level — $456 — appears to be based on a World Bank estimate of $1.25 per day — for one person. But Barton’s claim that the poverty rate in the United States is $40,000 is not true for one person — that annual income level (actually, it’s $40,090) is for a family/household of eight people. The poverty rate for one person in the United States is much lower — $11,670.

The American poverty level is much higher than the international poverty rate, of course. But it’s important to note that poverty levels are relative to a particular country’s standard of living. And yes, many (but certainly not all; consider the colonias in South Texas) poor Americans do have access to products that poor people elsewhere do not. But one big reason for that is government aid — aid that Barton and his fellow Republicans generally oppose.

Finally, Barton also distorts the comparison between poor Americans and middle-class Europeans. In fact, a study this spring showing that the American middle class is no longer the richest in the world also explains that the poor in much of Europe earn more than the poor in the United States.

In short, Barton appears to be either a terrible researcher or a liar. But we knew that.

So it really doesn’t surprise us anymore when Barton baldly distorts the truth. It does astonish us that his conservative audiences don’t appear to object to being treated like gullible fools.