New poverty calculus: Cause for alarm or political deception?
When the Census Bureau started counting food stamps and tax breaks as income, the poverty rate went up, not down. Some say the new poverty rate is a nuanced picture. Critics say its a ruse.
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The new figures, tied now more directly to cost of living, also gave insights into the geographical configuration of poverty, showing that the suburbs, the Northeast, and the West are more likely include poor people than under the old system.Skip to next paragraph
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But the overall rise in poverty under the new calculations clashes with other analyses of government figures. In fact, 39 states report no changes in the poverty rate even through the depths of the recent recession. An alternate set of data quoted by The New York Times last week showed that the number of poor people didn't grow by 9.7 million people since 2006, as the Census Bureau pointed out in September, but by 4.6 million people.
Moreover, critics say, the US definition of poverty – even before the change – incorporated many people who might not fit the typical image of living in poverty.
Government data not highlighted in the new study show that 60 percent of poor Americans have cable TV, 30 percent have wide screen or plasma TVs, and a majority live in a well-kept house with more square footage than the dwelling space for a middle-class English family.
An overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans in a Rasmussen poll in September said they believe that someone who has adequate housing, air conditioning, cable TV, and a computer in the house – which government data show is typical for a poor family – is, in fact, not poor.
The real poverty rate, by the measurements of Mr. Rector, who helped engineer President Clinton's welfare reform in 1996, is likely closer to 4 percent.
"When the average American thinks about poverty, they're thinking about significant material hardship, where you're living in a boarded up house and your kids are malnourished," he says. "I'm not saying they're living in luxury, but to pretend that [deprivation] is typical of someone in poverty is ridiculous. Those people are an even smaller portion of this new poverty population that's being defined."
Acknowledging the push-back, the Census Bureau added on Monday that the new measure is a "work in progress" and needs to better reflect housing and commuting costs, at least.
Yet quibbling over how to fine-tune the poverty rate misses the central point that economic stress is enveloping ever greater numbers of Americans, says Duke University economics professor William Darity.
“There is no exact way of measuring poverty," he says in an e-mail. "The measures are contingent on how we conceive of and define poverty. Efforts to develop more refined measures have been dominated by researchers who intentionally want to provide estimates that reduce the magnitude of poverty."
“For the Census Bureau to introduce a new measure that shows little change in the incidence of poverty in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression is absurd," he adds. "What we want to capture is the degree of deprivation and economic stress that is being felt by individuals and families – and certainly that has intensified greatly for the worse during the Great Recession.”
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