New Numbers Find 49 Million in Poverty

Marketplace Contributor Nov 7, 2011

The number of people under the official poverty line in the United States is higher than it has been in 50 years: more than 46 million people, more than 15% of the population. But the numbers released today for the Census’s more nuanced “Supplementary Poverty Measure” are even worse.

As we reported last week, the new measure is more nuanced, incorporating more of the variable costs that families face, as well as the public assistance they receive from the government. (Listen to how this plays out for a family in Trenton, New Jersey.)

While in the aggregate more people are considered poor under the new measure, they’re not necessarily the same people as under the official poverty line. Compared to the official measure, poverty increased on the coasts, where costs of living are higher. Poverty decreased among groups who are more likely to be beneficiaries of programs like food stamps, including African-Americans and children. Because immigrants and non-English speakers are less likely to benefit from these program, the proportion of Hispanics living in poverty exceeded that of African-Americans for the first time.

The new numbers aren’t replacing the official poverty measure, though. The poverty line is the basis for the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars, and a switch to the Supplemental Poverty Measure would reshuffle that money among states and congressional districts, says Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty: “I don’t think anybody politically wants to bear that risk right now.”

Census statistician Chuck Nelson insisted it’s still important:

“As someone who researched poverty for 20 to 30 years, any time you put out numbers that you think enlighten the public, it’s a big deal.”

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