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Two Takes on Poverty – Both of Them Ugly

No matter how you measure it, the poverty rate is high – and it’s probably going to stay that way. In September, Census reported a poverty rate of 15.1 percent – which represents the highest rate since 1965. Of perhaps even more concern was the official estimate that 6.7 percent of people in the U.S. live in deep poverty. Simply put, these families have cash resources less than half of the official poverty line. In 2010 the poverty line for a single parent with two children was $17,552. Imagine living for a year on less than half that.

More recently, Census came out with new poverty numbers. This new measure “the Supplemental Poverty Measure”, tries to capture well-being taking more than just a person’s cash resources into account. It also takes benefits from nutrition assistance programs (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly Food Stamps, school lunch program, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Women, Infants and Children – WIC), tax credits including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and housing and energy subsidies. On the debt side, it recognizes housing costs, medical out-of-pocket expenses, taxes, work expenses (including child care), and child support payments. These costs allow the measure to differentiate between the well-being of someone with equal resources living in expensive New York City compared to the less expensive Wyoming.

The result of the new poverty measure? More people live in poverty than the official measure suggests. And the hardest hit are working age adults and elderly – who see new costs recognized (costs associated with working and health care costs) without seeing all that much new assistance.

What does the diffrence between the standard and supplemental poverty measure tell us? Support programs are working for children, to some extent. Under the official measure, 16.8 million children live in poverty compared to 13.6 million under the supplemental measure. That’s still too many, but at least we can see some critical programs providing assistance (including the EITC and SNAP). The elderly, on the other hand, see their poverty rates rise – primarily because their benefits (Social Security and Supplement Security Income – SSI) were always counted in the official measure of poverty, but now their expenses (particularly those related to health care), are included as well. Under the new measure, 15.9 percent of seniors live in poverty – compared with 9.0 percent under the official measure. It’s perhaps a semantic quibble about who’s hurting more right now – but these poverty estimates (both of them) are important to watch. It’s how we, as residents of the U.S., can put pressure on our elected officials. Stop asking “what are people upset about in this country?”. Look at these numbers and start electing people who make helping its citizens a priority.


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About Elaine Marie