The Shriver Brief

Poverty by Any Other Name Is Still Poverty

PenniesLast September the Census Bureau released the 2009 poverty statistics, which showed that 14.3 percent of Americans are living in poverty. At 43.6 million people, this number has not been this high during the 51 years that the U.S. has published poverty rates.  Additionally, also published last September, the American Community Survey (ACS), which offers additional demographic and geographic information about poverty levels, revealed that in Illinois, 13.3 percent of the population is living in poverty. Another 6 percent of Illinois families are experiencing ‘extreme poverty’, surviving on $11,025 a year for a family of four.

Both the Census Bureau’s and the ACS’s estimates are calculated using the official poverty measure, a formula created in the mid-1960s based on the cost to feed a family. Yet, advocates, government agencies, and social service providers alike have pushed for a new, more accurate way to measure poverty. 

Since 1979, the Census Bureau has published a variety of experimental poverty measures using expanded definitions of income and alternative methods to account for inflation.

The Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement released annually by the Census Bureau, is one such alternative measure. The most recent statistics, published this month, revealed that 23.7 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2009, a number almost 10 percent higher than the official poverty measure. This ASEC data takes into account government benefit transfers (e.g., public assistance, medical assistance, etc.) in its calculation and shows that without public benefits the poverty rate would be much higher.

In the meantime, last May the Census Bureau announced that it will introduce a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) starting in the fall of 2011. The SPM will have many advantages over the official measure in that it will include factors such as family structure, public assistance, child support payments, and homeownership in its analysis. The Bureau is working hard at developing and testing different measures and it recently posted the following key findings from its initial research using the SPM:

  • The SPM poverty rate for all persons is 15.7 percent as opposed to 14.3 percent for the official rate.
  • The SPM poverty threshold is $24,869 whereas the official poverty threshold is $21,834.
  • The SPM calculates that 16.1 percent of the elderly are living in poverty. When out-of-pocket medical expenses are taken into consideration, the percentage drops drastically to 8.7 percent, indicating that medical expenses are a huge factor for the elderly.
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and food assistance (SNAP) appear to be effective at reducing poverty among children. According to the SPM calculation, the EITC reduces child poverty by 4 percent and SNAP reduces child poverty by almost 3 percent.

The SPM will be especially useful in evaluating the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies such as EITC. It will not replace the official poverty measure, which means that eligibility for government benefit programs will still use the outdated and incorrect official poverty measure thereby precluding many  from receiving the benefits they need. It also appears that the ACS and perhaps the ASEC will also continue to be published. Ultimately, however, it is important that the SPM, which will present a clearer picture of poverty, becomes the official measure so that policymakers can better serve the ever increasing number of families living in poverty with the hope of one day eliminating poverty entirely.  

This blog post was coauthored by Kelly Ward.


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Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
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