Poverty gets new measure at Census Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Census Bureau on Monday released what it says is a more accurate measure of poverty in America. The new measure shows more poverty among the elderly, but less among children and African-Americans.

It also shows a slightly higher poverty rate for the nation last year — 16 percent compared with 15.2 percent under the official measure — but lower rates among groups who benefit from government programs the official count has long ignored, including food stamps and the earned income tax credit.

As a result, there were 3.2 million fewer children found to be living in poverty in 2010, compared with the official measure, a difference of about 4 percent, and 800,000 fewer poor African-Americans, or 2 percent less.

Two of the biggest antipoverty measures, food stamps and the earned income tax credit, were expanded substantially under President Barack Obama's stimulus package, lifting about 11 million people above the poverty line in 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As those funds wind down, there is a concern that help for the poor could shrink.

"Unemployment isn't going away any time soon and Congress has been talking a lot about cutting deeply going forward," said Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the center.

Census officials cautioned that the Census Bureau's new measure, known as the supplemental poverty measure, would not replace the official one, which is used to calculate federal assistance to states and other types of spending.

The new assessment was developed primarily to give policymakers a sense of the effect that social safety net programs are having, said Kathleen Short, a Census Bureau official who presented the measure Monday at a conference at the Brookings Institution. It also includes costs like child care, out-of-pocket medical expenses and taxes, which erode income for those above the poverty line, greatly expanding the ranks of the near poor, whom the safety net does not reach.

The traditional measure of assessing poverty was first applied in the 1960s, when Americans spent roughly a third of their income on food. Today, spending on food has shrunk to a seventh of income, census officials say, while spending on housing, utilities and work expenses has expanded. The new measure, which counts those costs, was designed to adjust for that shift.

Poverty gets new measure at Census Bureau 11/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 10:40pm]

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