New poverty estimates could help lawmakers identify solutionsby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new census poverty measure released Monday shows that 49.1 million Americans live in poverty &mdash nearly two-and-a-half million more people than the Census previously reported.
Although the data do not include numbers for individual states, people who study poverty in Minnesota say while the numbers are tragic, the new method of estimating poverty can help lawmakers identify solutions.
Unlike the official poverty estimate released by the Census a few months ago, the new numbers are based on more than just household income. Researchers added supplemental income people receive through programs like food stamps, school lunches, WIC, housing subsidies and energy assistance. They subtracted expenses such as taxes, child care, child support payments, work expenses and out of pocket medical costs.
Census officials say the driving force behind the new measure was to provide policymakers data on what programs work to reduce poverty. Researchers found that food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers and families are the most effective government anti-poverty measures.
Census figures show that without the tax credit, the poverty rate for all Americans would increase from 16 to 18 percent, and from 18 percent to 22 percent for people under 18-years-old. The figures also show that out of pocket medical payments are largely responsible for increased poverty rates among people 65 and older. Americans in this group had the biggest poverty jump — now at 15.9 percent, compared to 9 percent under the official formula. The new Census numbers include regional, not state-by-state, data. In the Midwest, the new measure is lower than the previous estimate. That's consistent with past estimates showing that Minnesota's overall poverty rate is lower than other parts of the country. However, that's no comfort to Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.
"When people look at Minnesota's poverty statistics they notice that we're pretty low relative to lots of other states and we pat ourselves on the back, but the average figure completely masks what's going on in communities of color — which is disastrous poverty figures," Rusche said.
The new figures show that the poverty rate for Hispanics in the U.S. rose to 28 percent — surpassing African Americans for the first time.
Rusche said he's glad the government is using the new calculations — something that anti-poverty advocates have pushed for years. However, he's he's surprised the new methodology didn't result in a greater increase in the poverty rates. Rusche said the overall increase of nearly 1 percent nationwide doesn't match the type of demand for services he's seeing in Minnesota.
"Why are shelters brimming and why are food shelves under more pressure, and the people who do direct ministries that I hear from are just kind of aghast at the long lines and the unending pressure for help," Rusche said.
He hopes the new data will help persuade lawmakers not to eliminate or reduce programs that are helping relieve poverty. In 2007, a bipartisan group of state officials gathered to take poverty head on by forming the Legislative Commission to End Poverty by 2020. Commission members advocated for adopting more accurate poverty measures — such as the one adopted by the Census Bureau. And they developed recommendations for how to achieve the goal, such as raising the minimum wage and extending income tax credits to more people.
However, commission co-chair John Marty, a DFL Senator from Roseville said he doesn't think there is enough political will to make local or federal changes to end poverty.
"Yes, of course, if you know what the target is — the more accurate you know what the target is — the easier it is to figure out how to do it," Marty said. "But it doesn't do us a whole lot of good to have very precise measures of who's in poverty and who is not if we're not going anything about it."
Marty worries that the political will to fund anti-poverty measures is particularly lacking in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress consider ways to cut trillions of dollars of government spending.
- All Things Considered, 11/07/2011, 5:20 p.m.