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Poverty is up, but how much? Census tells two stories.

Almost 16 percent of Americans lived in poverty last year, according to new data released by the Census Bureau. The numbers were sharply higher than official rates, which reflect different measures.

By Staff writer / October 20, 2009

NEWSCOM

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The way you measure poverty makes a big difference in the results you get.

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The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that 15.8 percent of Americans lived in poverty last year, using an alternative gauge that differs sharply from the 13.2 percent official poverty rate the agency released last month.

The difference is even starker for some specific groups within America.

For example, Americans over age 65 have a poverty rate that's twice as high – 18.7 percent – using the alternative measure.

In all, 47.4 million Americans lived in poverty last year, or 7 million more than indicated in official poverty statistics last month.

Why the difference?

The official measure, created in 1955, does not factor in rising medical care, transportation, child care, or geographical variations in living costs. Nor does it consider non-cash government aid when calculating income. As a result, official figures released in September may have overlooked millions of poor people, many of them 65 and older.

So to help give a more rounded understanding of poverty in the country, the Census Bureau releases alternative measures developed by the National Academy of Sciences.

Here are the alternative poverty rates, followed by the official rate in parenthesis, for groups where the gap is significant:

• Single dads: 19.8 percent (versus 14.2 percent)

• Hispanic Americans: 29 percent (versus 23.2 percent)

• People in the West: 19 percent (versus 13.5 percent)

• People in the Northeast: 16.1 percent (versus 11.6 percent)

• People age 65 and up: 18.7 percent (9.7 percent)

The poverty jump for the West and Northeast reflects higher living costs in some of the most populated areas in those regions.

For one prominent group, children, poverty is about 1 percent lower using the alternate measure than the official one. But Americans under 18 had a poverty rate of 17.9 percent, higher than the national average.

Under either measure, poverty rose significantly last year as the nation was entering recession. And the number in poverty has gone up even more since the Census gathered data early last year, as the recession deepened.

The gap between the official and alternative poverty measures has widened significantly in the past decade – and the White House and Congress are considering whether to change the definition used for the official rate.

The numbers also come as Congress is considering whether to extend programs designed to aid struggling households.

"Policymakers face a serious challenge in helping low-income populations cope with the downturn," LaDonna Pavetti, a poverty expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, said at a congressional hearing this month.

She estimated that this year's economic stimulus program will keep 6.2 million Americans out of poverty. That's because of stimulus bill provisions including tax credits for working families, nutrition assistance, strengthened unemployment assistance, and one-time payments to senior citizens, veterans, and people with disabilities.

The stimulus effect, however, come alongside the negative impact of rising unemployment since the Census numbers were gathered.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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