DN Editorial: Who is and isn't poor in America

Posted: November 14, 2011

A NEW, supplemental measure of poverty released last week by the Census Bureau provided a slightly different view of just who is poor in America. But it doesn't change the reality that a shocking number of Americans are struggling to provide a decent life for themselves and their families.

The federal government's traditional method of measuring poverty - and therefore its way of determining eligibility for federal safety-net programs - is dreadfully out of date. Devised in 1964, it is based on the notion (applicable at the time) that households typically spend a third of income on food. So the poverty line is essentially triple a basic food budget: $24,343 for a family of four in 2010. Other big expenses like housing, out-of-pocket medical expenses and child care are not taken into account.

For years now, of course, conservatives have challenged the notion that Americans are really poor. The Heritage Foundation points out that even a poor family typically has a car, air conditioning, refrigerator, and two televisions. Color televisions. Besides, families get food stamps and those who still have jobs can collect a couple thousand dollars from the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits. (So what if the jobs don't cover the rent, or pay for the heat? They're much better off than people in Somalia.)

The new measure of poverty was set up to take into account the expenses that are missed from the traditional measure, and the effect of government programs. It shows that even more Americans - 49.1 million (16 percent) - are poor under the new measure than in the traditional one, which caculated poverty at 15.2 percent. But it finds different people above and below the arbitrary poverty line:

* More older people are below the poverty line in the new measure. Under the traditional measure, 9 percent are poor; but if you subtract the medical expenses that eat into their incomes, 15.9 percent are poor

* Government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - food stamps - as well as various tax credits geared toward working people, lift 3.2 million children slightly above the poverty line.

* In the new measure, 800,000 fewer African-Americans are deemed to be in poverty than in the traditional measure.

Frankly, though, we think that instead of an arbitrary poverty line, there ought to be a "people having a hard time" line - and all these households, as well as the one-third of Americans who are just one rung above them - between 100 and 200 percent of poverty - would be under it.

Given this snapshot of so many citizens on the edge of the abyss, it's criminally foolish that Congress has allowed the stimulus programs that kept close to 7 million Americans above the poverty line in 2010 to expire - and that a congressional "supercommittee" is working on a plan to slash the safety net even more, supposedly in the interest of reducing the deficit. Congress should be serving the interests of millions of Americans now living below the "people having a hard time" line.

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