Poverty numbers off the mark? Data gets makeover

US census generic silhouettes flag map poverty population

A U.S. government report last September that said the number of Americans living in poverty had soared to 46.2 million people was criticized by many experts as flawed.

They say the Census Bureau's official poverty measures - based on income thresholds that vary according to family size - has failed to incorporate both the value of social services received (such as food stamps and housing subsidies) and losses incurred (i.e., taxes, health care), as well as regional differences in the cost of living.

The official measure no longer corresponds to reality, Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel 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."

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Now the Bureau is introducing an alternative measure of poverty that may bolster the arguments of both proponents of social safety nets and critics of government spending.

On Monday the government will release its supplemental poverty measure research which is meant to complement (but not replace) the country's official poverty measure. The new data is being produced in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When taking the new calculations of costs and benefits into account, the Times reports, up to half the reported rise in poverty over the last five years disappears. But the numbers change in other, unexpected ways.

The alternative measure would reveal fewer children living in poverty, but more adults, due to their high medical expenses. There is less poverty among blacks, and higher poverty among Asians; less in rural areas, and more in urban areas and suburbs, with their higher costs of living.

The new figures would also show more people existing at near-poor levels due to child care, medical expenses and taxes, yet unable to qualify for many benefit programs.

The revised poverty data may boost the arguments of supporters of spending on social programs that they work - that they do reduce the ranks of the impoverished, particularly children, and that more may need to be done (particularly with regard to health care costs) for the aged.

But the new numbers may also be taken by critics of government spending that poverty rates have, to now, been exaggerated, and that taxpayers do not need to shoulder any additional burden for the benefit of the poor.