$1 More And You're No Longer Poor? U.s. Poverty Rate At Its Lowest, But Criteria Are Not Realistic In Today's Economy

Posted: September 29, 2000

The poverty level for a family of three is income of $13,290 a year.

Does that mean that if you give a dollar to a single mother of two kids, who earns exactly that amount, she won't be poor anymore?

Does it mean she'll automatically be able to pay her rent, keep her kids healthy and well fed, with a little left over for the higher heating costs expected this winter?

You might think so listening to all the political self-congratulation from the U.S. Census Bureau at the news that the poverty rate is 11.9 percent - the lowest since 1979, with historic lows marked for African-American and Latinos.

Republicans said the good news was due to welfare reform, which they pushed.

Democrats claimed credit for President Clinton's (and Al Gore's) stewardship of the economy.

Few, if any, assessed the news in realistic terms. Is life any less desperate for people at the lower end of the economic ladder? Probably not.

The federal poverty measure in use since the mid-1960s reflects the times in which it was developed - times very different from today.

The measure was developed by taking a basic menu for food, costing it out and multiplying it by three.

Then, as now, the measure didn't take into consideration the costs of child care, health care, car insurance or subway tokens, or housing. Especially housing.

Once upon a time, the rule of thumb was that a family should spend about one week's salary a month for housing.

For the single mother mentioned above, that's $256 a month. Seen any two-bedroom apartments for that lately? In fact, most low-income people spend more than half of their incomes for housing, sometimes two-thirds.

Even those in the middle incomes are making it only because they are working more hours.

Ironically, the booming economy and rising upper- and middle-class incomes might make it even more difficult to make it in unrich America. Higher housing costs at the high end of the spectrum raise housing costs across the board, especially in cities.

Millions of Americans work fulltime and can barely feed or shelter their families. One piece of bad luck - like an illness - can bring it all crashing down.

They never had it so good, it's true.

That doesn't mean that their lives and those of their children are any less precarious.

City of sisterly love

Drexelmania is sweeping the region, with posters (one was available in yesterday's Daily News), TV specials and souvenirs.

But unlike many celebrities, Philadelphian Katharine Drexel, who will be canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday, deserves all the attention she's getting - even from non-Catholics.

In founding an order of nuns dedicated to serving Native and African-Americans, Saint Katharine accomplished more than most women of that era - even fabulously wealthy women. She was smart, savvy and dedicated. No wonder Philadelphians of all (or no) religions admire her.

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