Exactly who is poor?

Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:43 p.m.

Americans fuss and fight over many aspects of public policy. But here's something about which there's not much argument:

If you fall below the federal threshold for "poverty," you are poor. You aren't just needy or disadvantaged. At best, you hover somewhere between broke and destitute. It's easy to prove. All you need is a pencil and the back of an envelope.

The federal poverty threshold set by the U.S. Census Bureau for a family of four in 2009 was $21,954 a year. Deduct from that $650 a month for rent and utilities, $20 a day for food and $138 a month for two 30-day bus passes to get to work, and you end up with the princely sum of $14.72 a day to cover everything else — child care, household and personal care products, clothing, haircuts, school supplies, home furnishings and health care.

In addition to the numbers from the 2010 census, the Census Bureau has begun to publish reams of research that challenges its own methods. Determining the poverty threshold is one such topic.

A paper published recently investigates the question, "Who is poor?" It summarizes work begun in 1995 to develop a "supplemental poverty measure" to take a closer look at the "resources" that should be included and how a "household" should be defined when setting poverty thresholds.

Household resources are more realistically stated, for example, by including "near cash" benefits such as housing subsidies, food stamps, free and reduced-price school lunches and supplemental nutrition for women, infants and children.

To avoid inflating the results, such things as taxes, work expenses, child care, out-of-pocket medical costs and child support payments should be deducted.

The research also found you get a truer picture of a "household" by treating everyone who lives under the same roof as a "family unit."

These more realistic standards make the overall poverty rate slightly higher for most groups. Most striking is that people living in official poverty "have characteristics more similar to the total population."

People end up poor, it seems, even when they are trying their hardest not to. They can be pushed into poverty by paying to get to and from work, finding child care, keeping up with child-support obligations, medical expenses and caring for children who are not their own.

Who's poor? More often than you'd think, people just like you are.

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