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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On poverty, or counting those who don't count

The U.S. Census released a new report Monday that tries to remedy structural problems with how the federal government counts the number of people living in poverty. The official measure was put together a half-century ago by a government official - and it's been the basic formula ever since.

I won't get wonkish here - you can read the report, which includes the background. But there are several problems. The official measure doesn't account for regional costs differences - rent here in Southern California, for example, versus where my parents live in rural Western New York. And while the official measure doesn't include income support from food stamps and other programs (something the New York Times found significant in this rather odd piece printed before the new report was available), it also doesn't measure health costs, child care costs, transportation - all the things that have significant impacts on family budgets.

So the new measure puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 49.1 million - in a nation of 315 million. That's nearly 3 million more people than the official measure estimated in September, and amounts to about 1.6 of every 10 Americans.

Yet the government still measures poverty at an indefensible threshold. The federal guidelines set the poverty line at $10,890 a year for a single person, and $22,350 a year for a family of four (two adults, two children). So a 70-year-old woman living on $15,000 a year is not considered to be living in poverty. Parents holding down minimum wage jobs to support their two children - making a combined $30,160 a year before taxes, Social Security payments, child care, health car, etc. - would not be considered living in poverty.

As we face protests from the left and the right about corporate excess, governmental ineptitude, and political gridlock, we again are missing what is in plain view. We are, with our religious embrace of federal policies that put global corporate profits ahead of American communities, building a wide and deep pool of poverty in this country.

And that is indefensible.
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