A New Measure of an Old Ill: Poverty

The New York Times reports today that the U.S. Census Bureau is about to release a long-awaited new standard for measuring poverty.

Demographic methodology doesn’t ordinarily prompt major news coverage. But poverty is looming larger on the national radar these days, as I explored in my Oct. 28 CQ Researcher report, “Child Poverty.” One reason is a recent Census Bureau report of 2010 poverty statistics.

These numbers – based on the old methodology – showed a marked increase in the number of people living below the poverty line. The increase was especially drastic for children, 22 percent of whom were categorized as poor.

I cited that statistic and related findings in my report, along with experts’ questioning of the validity of poverty-calculation methods.

One aspect of the statistical issue that emerged both from my reporting and that of The Times: Experts on both sides of the deep left-right divide over poverty policy agree that new methodology is needed.

Both sides want – and apparently will get – calculation methods that take into account the benefits of antipoverty programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. For experts on the left, accounting for this aid will show its value in helping people. On the right, the idea is to show the magnitude of government aid to low-income people, to bolster conservatives’ argument that no more help is needed.

At the lower reaches of the socioeconomic ladder, some of the struggling people I spoke with do receive food stamps and other assistance. But they said they still relied on donations from food banks to keep their families fed.

--Peter Katel