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That 'Official' Poverty Rate? It's Much Worse than You Think

The shocking poverty statistics released last week tell only part of the story.

While the shocking new poverty statistics from the Census Bureau indicating that a record  43.6 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009 emphatically demonstrates the severity of the economic crisis, the Census is drastically undercounting this demographic. Apparently the government's poverty statistics are as accurate as its unemployment statistics.

I have read many reports that simply restate what the government has said without questioning the fact that the metrics it uses to calculate poverty are extremely outdated.

News reports say that in 2009 the poverty rate “skyrocketed” to 43.6 million -- up from  39.8 million in 2008, which is the largest year-to-year increase, and the highest number since statistics have been recorded -- putting the poverty rate for 2009 at 14.3 percent. This is obviously a tragedy and horrific news. However, this is also the result of lazy reporting.

Let’s revisit the 2008 Census total stating that 39.8 million Americans lived in poverty. It turns out that the  National Academy of Science did its own study and found that  47.4 million Americans actually lived in poverty in 2008. The Census missed 7.6 million Americans living in poverty that year.

How did that happen? The Census Bureau uses a long outdated method to calculate the poverty rate. The Census is measuring poverty based on costs of living metrics established  back in 1955 -- 55 years ago! They ignore many key factors, such as the increased costs of medical care, child care, education, transportation, and many other basic costs of living. They also don’t factor geographically based costs of living. For example, try finding a place to live in New York that costs the same as a place in Florida.

So the Census poverty rate increase of 3.8 million people will put the 2009 National Academy of Science (NAS) number at a minimum of 51.2 million Americans. And if the margin of discrepancy is equivalent to the 7.6 million of 2008, we are looking at a NAS number of at least 52 million people for 2009.

Let’s also consider the fact that more than  20 million people were on unemployment benefits last year. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis concluded that unemployment insurance temporarily kept  3.3 million people out of poverty. Food stamp assistance kept another  2.3 million people out of poverty. If we were to include all of these people, we'd be looking at almost 60 million Americans living in poverty. Which means the government number doesn't account for over 14.1 million Americans in poverty.

Now let’s look at the poverty line these numbers are based on: $22,050 for a family of four. Let me repeat that: $22,050 for a family of four. That breaks down to $5,513 per person, per year. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine living in the United States on $459 per month. That amount will barely get you a good health insurance policy, never mind food, clothes and a roof over your head. No wonder why a record  50.7 million Americans do not have health insurance. (Beware: 50.7 million Americans without health insurance is a government-based number. If you had health insurance for only one day last year, you are not counted in this total.)

Clearly, the Census is setting the income level for its poverty measurement extremely low. If we were to increase that measure by just a small increment, to $25,000 for a family of four, I estimate that the National Academy of Science would come up with a number of nearly 100 million Americans in poverty.

Let’s also consider the staggering amount of Americans -- 52 million, roughly 17 percent of the population -- who are currently enrolled in “ anti-poverty” programs. Over 50 million are on Medicaid, 41 million on food stamps, 10 million on unemployment, 4.4 million receive welfare. Not counted in this “anti-poverty” total are  30 million children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. Another metric: if it wasn’t for Social Security -- note to deficit hawks -- 20 million more would be added to the poverty total.

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