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Discounting poverty

The poor don't count in Washington, D.C., according to a new report by the Greater Washington Research Group. That's more than a campaign season cliche, it's a literal allegation leveled by an independent, nonpartisan research center. While the 1990 U.S. Census found a quarter-million of the greater Washington area's 4-million residents living in poverty, a conservative estimate by the research center suggests that at least 50,000 were overlooked. When all factors are considered, the actual numbers could be much higher.

The research group says the government's own estimates indicate that 73,000 Washington-area residents may not have been counted in 1990. It is reasonable to assume that many of them are living in poverty. Poor people are more difficult to count, experts say, not just in the nation's capital but in any large urban area. Poverty can force families and individuals to move frequently or to double up on housing. Sketchy immigration status or other legal problems can prompt some people to evade census-takers, and beleaguered residents of high-crime neighbors might decide not to open the door for a stranger, period. Then there are the homeless, the most easily overlooked of all.

Many urban officials have alleged that the federal government doesn't try hard enough to find the poor. Since the formula for extending federal aid to the cities includes population and poverty figures, fewer poor people means a lighter federal obligation.

A less obvious problem brought to light by the Greater Washington Research Center is the government's failure to count poverty among 100,000 local adults who live in institutional settings. For instance, jails, nursing homes and similar facilities house about 40,000 people in and near Washington. The link between poverty and prison is well-documented; many nursing home residents have spent all their savings and must depend on Medicaid to pay the bills. These populations were included in the census but not counted as poor, an oversight with obvious implications.

Census workers also failed to quiz residents of the area's many college dormitories and military barracks about poverty- level incomes, the report noted. How many recruits and students on grants would otherwise be unable to support themselves and their families?

The end result is a distorted and misleading profile of social and economic need. Census data show that the percentage of poor people in and near Washington fell slightly during the last decade, even though the actual number of people living in poverty increased. There were more poor people, in other words, but more rich people, too.

The Reagan and Bush administrations have focused almost exclusively on the plus side of this equation, asking voters _ at least until recently _ if they were better off now than four years ago. Every social and economic indicator suggests that large numbers of people are not better situated, however, and that the gap between rich and poor has grown dangerously wide.

It is time for the federal government to stop playing with numbers and start tallying the full extent of the damage. What better place to begin than the nation's capital, where so many poor Americans exist on the streets, but not on paper?

Correction

When Mary Jean McAllister qualified in July 1984 as a candidate for Pinellas county judge, she had been a lawyer for two years. A state law and constitutional amendment requiring five years minimum service in the Florida Bar for county judge candidates did not take effect until the fall of 1984. Because the new law did not apply to McAllister's 1984 campaign, a Sept. 3 Times editorial was not accurate in suggesting her 1984 candidacy failed to meet the statutory and constitutional eligibility requirements.

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