by Elizabeth Aguilera / SignOnSanDiego / Nov. 7, 2011
Statistics released under a new measure of poverty on Monday showed more people overall living in poverty in the U.S. by taking into account 21st century costs of living and differences in geography.
The number using the new measure in 2010 was 16 percent of Americans, or 49.1 million, living in poverty — up from 46.2 million using the traditional measure.
With the supplemental measure, the U.S. Census Bureau also took into account help from certain forms of government assistance aimed at families, showing fewer children in poverty than previously thought.
Lauded as more accurate by some and still problematic by others, the more nuanced poverty measure also shows heightened poverty among older Americans, who benefit less from such programs.
By taking cost of living into account, the data shows it is more financially challenging to live in the west — where one in five live in poverty — than in other regions.
“The report echoes what we’ve been seeing in the field,” said Jennifer Gilmore, executive director of Feeding America San Diego. “There is not one population that is struggling to keep food on the table. We are seeing it across the board and we are seeing it growing with seniors.”
The data showed the west and northeast have higher rates of poverty than previously reported and the numbers in the midwest and the south may previously have been overstated.
The official poverty rate for 2010, reported in September, showed 15.1 percent of people in poverty, or 46.2 million. The official rate was created in the 1960s and accounts only for cash income and food costs. The new measure accounts for government assistance and other costs of living, such as rent.
Experts and advocates for the poor have long argued the official poverty measure was outdated.
“This new measure is a welcome improvement after a half-century of the flawed federal poverty Guidelines,” said Susan Smith, of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland.
The new data are a reminder of two things, Smith said — basic safety-net programs are working, and those who are living on poverty’s doorstep are not eligible for assistance.
Year over year, the new measure also shows poverty grew but not as sharply as had been reported. According to alternate census data released two weeks ago and an analysis by The New York Times, the number of those in poverty grew by less than half of the 9.7 million reported in September and at least 39 states reflected no significant growth in poverty.
The supplemental measure of poverty was created two years ago to better evaluate federal assistance programs, said Kathleen Short, Census Bureau research economist.
“This allows us to examine the effect of taxes and in-kind benefits,” Short said. “While not lowering poverty rates, in-kind benefits help keep people at those levels.”
The data comes just as a Congressional “super committee” stares down a Nov. 23 deadline to cut more than $1 trillion from the federal budget, which could include cuts to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, food stamps and the like.
“We now have a much fuller picture which should allow policymakers to better target scarce government resources,” said Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The new measure will not replace the official poverty rate in determining eligibility for federal assistance, Census officials said.
The new figures also will do little to change the political debate around poverty, in which liberals defend social programs and conservatives say there are enough benefits provided, said Ron King, political science professor at San Diego State University, who teaches a class on power and poverty.
King calls the rates an improvement and a more reasonable account, but said both old and new measures are arbitrary. What really matters, he said, is the change year over year as opposed to the actual figures.
“It is still true that the U.S. by most reasonable counts of poverty has the highest child poverty rate of the advanced industrial society after welfare,” King said. “The big story is the one that we’ve always known. Recession is hurting people, lots of people, and the poor people more than anyone else.”
Under the new measure, poverty among children decreases because they are the main beneficiaries of social programs. Poverty among seniors jumps due to health care and medical costs, Short said.
Within the new calculations, people over 65 saw the most pronounced jump in poverty, up 6.9 percentage points from the official poverty rate of 9 percent.
In Lemon Grove, Andrew and Helen Halmay are not surprised considering they pay $600 a month for Andrew’s health insurance. Helen, 68, is on Medicare. Andrew Halmay was always skeptical of the government reports on poverty, saying many more people are affected. Still, the Halmays consider themselves blessed, even in such austere times. Long before Andrew, 59, lost his Kodak job in 2009, the couple had been saving as much as possible, driving old cars and watching television transmitted through bunny ears.
Now, the couple relies on that savings every month along with Helen’s $900 a month Social Security check. Andrew’s unemployment expired months ago. The couple give credit to Helen’s parents for a gift that makes up the other leg of their survival table. Helen’s parents, Paul and Elizabeth McCormick, built the Lemon Grove house where the Halmays now live in 1946.
“The home is in trust and now we are able to survive because of their foresight. They never had a mortgage. They did not go into debt,” said Helen, one of the founders of the Lemon Grove Historical Society.
“The trick is you have to live below your means to have any kind of savings. That is what we did,” Andrew Halmay said. “I’m heading for the same cliff everybody else is. I just have a little bit more of a cushion.”
Like the Halmays, Marcia Boruta of University Heights does not trust the poverty rates or, for that matter, the government’s unemployment rate.
“We need good jobs in America, a lot of them,” said Boruta, 60, who has job interview today after nearly two years of unemployment. “In our situation, you just really focus on paying the essential bills — housing, utilities, food, car payment.”
At Feeding America San Diego, Gilmore said seniors are impacted by a variety of factors including helping grown unemployed children, raising grandchildren on their own, social security does not stretch far enough, and the rising cost of medications.
“It’s tough on (seniors), they have worked, they have socked money away, they have retired, they have served in the military, they have raised families, they have paid for their homes,” she said. “To find themselves in the position of not being able to keep food on the table is a real punch in the gut.”