New Census Data Good for Researchers

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In September, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 15.2 percent of all U.S. people or 46,602,000 were living below the poverty line. This number was reached using the standard measure, the same method the Census Bureau has used for the last half century, and "a method that no longer corresponds to reality," as Jane Waldfogel, Future of Children Issue Editor/ Author and Professor of Social Work at Columbia University told the New York Times. "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."  (New York Times, November 3, 2011)

This week, the Census Bureau released new poverty data based on using new methods that take into account federal programs, including tax breaks and food stamps, the cost of medical care, transportation costs to get to and from work, and the changing make-up of families. The latest figures raise the poverty line to an annual income of $24,343 for a family of 2 adults and 2 children compared to $22,113 under the official standard. When taking these factors into consideration, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in the U.S. rose to 16 percent or 49,094,000.

On the PBS News Hour, in a segment with Ray Suarez, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins points out that this is not the first time the Census Bureau has looked at poverty in the United States in a more comprehensive way. The Census Bureau has been publishing similar numbers, although not as complete as the New Supplemental Poverty Measure, since roughly 1995. One of the reasons the poverty measure is important is that it can indicate whether or not government programs are helping those living in poverty. Haskins states in this interview that these programs provide a substantial amount of help, particularly to low-income working families.

The Census Bureau admits that the new measure will not replace the official poverty measure, and it will not be used for resource allocation or for program eligibility. But this crucial data could begin to tell us something about the way millions of Americans are forced to live. (The Guardian Datablog, November 11, 2011)

As Haskins says, "I think it's helpful for [Americans] to learn that government programs make a big difference, and it's helpful for the poor to know that, if they try to work, even if they make low income, they can do much better because of government programs... To me, that's the main message of this report, that government programs are effective in helping poor people, especially if they're helping themselves."

A table comparing the data from the Standard Poverty Measure with the New Supplemental Poverty Measure can be found on the Guardian Datablog.

For more information on programs that support poor families, see the Future of Children's volume on Antipoverty Policies.

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