When the Census Bureau said in September that the number of poor Americans had soared by 10 million to rates rarely seen in four decades, commentators called the report “shocking” and “bleak.” Most poverty experts would add another description: “flawed.”
Concocted on the fly a half-century ago, the official poverty measure ignores ever more of what is happening to the poor person’s wallet — good and bad. It overlooks hundreds of billions of dollars the needy receive in food stamps and other benefits and the similarly formidable amounts they lose to taxes and medical care. It even fails to note that rents are higher in places like Manhattan than they are in Mississippi.
On Monday, that may start to change when the Census Bureau releases a long-promised alternate measure meant to do a better job of counting the resources the needy have and the bills they have to pay. Similar measures, quietly published in the past, suggest among other things that safety-net programs have played a large and mostly overlooked role in restraining hardship: as much as half of the reported rise in poverty since 2006 disappears.
The fuller measures have also shown less poverty among children but more among older Americans, who are plagued by high medical costs. They have shown less poverty among blacks but more among Asians; less poverty in rural areas and more in cities and suburbs, where the cost of living is high. And they have found fewer people in abject destitution, but a great many more crowding the hard-luck ranks of the near poor, who do not qualify for many benefit programs and lose income to taxes, child care and medical costs.
“The official measure no longer corresponds to reality,” said Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia University. “It doesn’t get either side of the equation right — how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data.”
Coming amid soaring need and bitter debt debates, the findings in Monday’s release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more.
Experts expect the new report to be consistent with a decade of research about the ways in which the official poverty rate distorts the realities of American poverty.
The numbers in this article are based on that research — by the census, the National Academy of Sciences and others — and include not just cash income but also government benefits, work expenses, taxes and cost of living. Many experts expect Monday’s census report, based on similar methods, to add a bit to the official poverty count of 46.2 million, while most experts also expect the recent growth will appear less steep.
One alternate census data set quietly published last week said the number of poor people has grown by 4.6 million since 2006, not by 9.7 million as the bureau reported in September. At least 39 states showed no statistically significant poverty growth despite surging unemployment, according to an analysis by The New York Times, including Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.
In North Carolina, poverty has risen by more than 250,000 people by official count, but stayed flat under the alternate measure despite soaring unemployment.
One explanation can be found in programs the official count ignores: food stamps and tax credits. Combined the two programs delivered $221 billion across the country last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than doubling since 2006.
In Charlotte, Angelique Melton was among the beneficiaries. A divorced mother of two, Ms. Melton, 42, had worked her way up to a $39,000 a year position at a construction management firm. But as building halted in 2009, Ms. Melton lost her job.
Struggling to pay the rent and keep the family adequately fed, she took the only job she could find: a part-time position at Wal-Mart that paid less than half her former salary. With an annual income of about $7,500 — well below the poverty line of $17,400 for a family of three — Ms. Melton was officially poor.
Unofficially she was not.