Widely-Reported Flat Poverty Rate May Be Deceptive

February 17, 2011

A New York Times editorial cites one of the Census Bureau’s alternative poverty estimates as evidence that “the safety net, fortified by stimulus” kept the number of people in poverty from rising in 2009.

For this, it relies on an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — the same one I used to arrive at a similar, though more cautious conclusion.

“Sorry,” says Shawn Fremstad, Director of the Inclusive and Sustainable Economy Initiative at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Poverty really did increase in 2009.”

True, the expanded food stamp benefits and tax credits that were part of the economic recovery act may have kept poverty from increasing as much as it would have otherwise. But they didn’t offset the impacts of massive job losses and related losses of health insurance.

According to Fremstad, the alternative poverty rate didn’t go up in part because the alternative poverty threshold that produced the no-increase result went down. This, he says, was also true for the threshold used to produce the official poverty rate, but the decline was smaller — slightly over a third of a percent, as compared to 1%.

The gap reflects differences in the data sets Census uses to establish the thresholds.

As I’ve written before, the official threshold is set at three times the early 1960′s cost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economy Food Plan, adjusted for inflation. The alternative threshold at issue is instead tied to the amount that moderate-income households spend on housing, utilities and food.

When the housing market tanks, as it certainly has, the alternative threshold won’t keep up with the overall inflation rate — even actually decline, as it did in 2009. This could boost some people above the cut-off, though they were as income-poor as those who fell below it were in 2008.

But if their housing costs were actually lower, wouldn’t their resources come closer to covering their basic needs? For the purposes of the poverty measure, that depends on what counts as a basic need.

Which brings us to Fremstad’s second point. The no-increase alternative measure doesn’t fully account for medical costs. Instead, it adjusts only for out-of-pocket medical expenditures, e.g., deductibles and co-pays.

Sounds reasonable enough until you consider what can happen when people lose health insurance, as 4.4 million did in 2009.

Some will be well enough off to pay for essential health care costs, notwithstanding the bigger drain on their resources.They’ll seem to be poorer because the measure picks up their costs.  Others will forgo care. They’ll seem to be relatively better off, though they could well be poorer than those who continue to pay for care.

Fremstad says the Census Bureau actually did publish some alternative poverty measures that include medical expenses, rather than just out-of-pockets. These produced higher thresholds than in 2008 and somewhere between 1.1 million and 1.8 million more people in poverty.

Still less than the 3.74 million in the official estimate, but enough to suggest that the poverty rate didn’t stay flat — if the test is whether people could afford essential expenditures.

Lastly, Fremstad notes that the Census Bureau counted the full value of refundable tax credits as 2009 income, even though “nearly all” the families who gained from the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit got their benefits as a lump sum in 2010, i.e., after they filed their 2009 tax returns.

So they were no less poor in 2009 than they would have been with no refunds at all.

None of this is to say that CBPP erred in finding that major safety net programs, including the expansions effected by the recovery act, kept some millions of people out of poverty. Nor that the Times is wrong in saying that Congress should “take a good look at those numbers … before it commits to any more slashing and burning.”

But it does, I think, show how urgently we need a single, reliable poverty measure to tell us how many poor people there are — and who they are — at any given time and over time.

As the Times editorial indicates, this is not just of interest to economists and others of a wonkish bent. It’s got real world consequences for policymaking and for a still-unknown number of poor people affected by the policies made.


New Angles On How Many Poor People There Are In The U.S.

January 20, 2011

I remarked some time ago that we didn’t know how many poor people there were in the U.S. We still don’t because the Census Bureau is still working on a measure that would take account of many factors the official measure ignores.

As part of the process, it’s been releasing annual alternative poverty estimates based on recommendations the National Academy of Sciences made back in 1995. The latest set came out in early January — three multi-columned spreadsheets, each with many, many figures.

I couldn’t make heads or tails of them, though I could see that the poverty rate for 2009 might be as low as 12.8% or as high as 17.1%, depending on which NAS recommendations were applied. So  there could have been as relatively few as 39 million people in poverty or as many as 52.5 million.

Fortunately, a new brief from the Economic Policy Institute gives us non-economist the big picture — though not an answer to how many poor people there are.

As EPI explains, the alternative estimates make different kinds of adjustments in the poverty threshold, i.e., the dollar cut-off for counting people as poor, and/or in what’s counted as income.

The official threshold is three times the food budget at the time the official poverty measure was developed, with adjustments for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.

The Census Bureau produces alternative thresholds by adjusting for out-of-pocket medical expenses, cost-of-living differences in different parts of the country and a different measure of consumer price inflation — the Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Looking only at the alternative thresholds, the share of the population in poverty seems higher than the official 14.3% rate the Bureau reported in September. Hence a high-end estimate of poor people so much greater than the official 43.6 million.

The income adjustments tell a different story.

The official measure counts only cash income, i.e., wages and cash benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance.

The alternative measures take account of non-cash benefits like food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid and of tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

With these included, the poverty rate is lower than the official estimate, even when taxes are factored in. As with the thresholds, how much depends on which adjustments are made.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also crunched the numbers. It came to basically the same conclusions about the income adjustments, though with a more political slant aimed at justifying the temporary new and expanded tax credits and benefits in the economic recovery act.

According to CBPP, the recovery act improvements kept 4.5 million people out of poverty. An additional 11 million were lifted above the poverty threshold by the regular versions of five of the programs — the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits, unemployment insurance and food stamps.

And, as EPI also shows, the biggest anti-poverty impact came, as it has in the past, from Social Security retirement benefits. CBPP says these kept more than 20 million people out of poverty. Looking at its table on program impacts as a whole, the number seems more like 21.4 million.

In short, the major federal anti-poverty programs are doing what they’re supposed to do. Without them, a vastly larger number of people would have been poor enough to be counted as such.

I don’t suppose I need add that these programs are at high risk — if not of annihilation, then of significant retrenchments.


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