Better Poverty Measure Shows Worse U.S. Poverty Rate

November 6, 2013

We should be used to this by now. The Census Bureau has just reported a higher national poverty rate than the rate it reported in September. According to its Supplemental Poverty Measure, the rate is 16%, instead of 15%, as the official measure indicated.*

This means that somewhat over 2.7 million more people — a total of 49.7 million — were living in poverty last year. On a somewhat brighter note, the percent of people living in severe poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, is again lower — by 1.5% — than the official measure shows.

We again see shifts up and down for state-level rates as well.

For example, the rate for the District of Columbia rises from 19.3% to 22.7%, according to the three-year averages the Census Bureau uses for the SPM. Rates based on the three-year averages dropped in 28 states and increased more than the District’s in five.

As in the past, we also see shifts in rates for different age and race/ethnicity groups. For example, the poverty rate for blacks dips from 27.3% to 25.8%, while the poverty rate for Asians rises from 11.8% to 16.7%.

The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is still the lowest, but it’s higher than the official rate — 10.7%, as compared to 9.8%.

The rate changes all reflect differences between the crude, official measure and the SPM, which goes at poverty measurement in a different — and more sensible — way.

I’ll forgo another summary of how the SPM works. I took a stab at one last year and the year before. And the Census Bureau has a more extensive (and wonkish) explanation in its report.

From a policy perspective, both the overall higher poverty rate and the rate shifts are especially important because they show both the impacts and the limits of major federal benefits programs.

So far as the rate shifts are concerned, the most striking are those for the young and the old.

  • The child poverty rate drops from 22.3% to 18%, reducing the number of children in poverty by about 3.2 million.
  • For children, the severe poverty rate is less than half what it is under the official measure — 4.7%, as compared to 10.3%.
  • The poverty rate for seniors rises from 9.1% to 14.8%, increasing the number of poor people 65 and older by nearly 2.5 million.
  • The severe poverty rate for seniors also rises, from 2.7% to 4.7%.

The higher rates for seniors reflect principally the amount they spend on medical out-of-pockets, e.g., deductibles, copays.

This seems to me pretty good evidence that the chained CPI, which could still become the new cost-of-living adjustment measure for Social Security benefits, would disadvantage the 36% of seniors who rely almost entirely on them, as well as younger people who receive them because they’re severely disabled.

At this point, however, Social Security remains by far and away the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. The SPM report shows that, without it, 26.6 million more people of all ages would have been poor — and the poverty rate for seniors a whopping 54.7%.

The report speaks to another issue that Congress is debating — and one that it isn’t, but should deal with swiftly.

The hot issue is SNAP (the food stamp program) — not whether to cut it because Congress has already done that, but by how much more.

So it’s useful to know that pre-cut SNAP benefits lifted well over 4.9 million people, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty last year. They were the single most important factor in the marked drop in severe child poverty, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

The back-burner issue is the soon-to-expire Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, i.e., cash benefits for workers who’ve been jobless longer than their regular state programs cover.

I may have more to say about this, but will note here that unemployment insurance benefits generally reduced the SPM poverty rate by somewhat less than 1% — about 2.54million people.

UI benefits have lifted fewer and fewer people out of poverty since 2009 — mainly because fewer jobless workers are receiving them, according to a recent CBPP analysis based on other Census figures.

Retrenchments Congress made in the EUC program in early 2012 are part of this story. I suppose more recent figures would show the impact of sequestration as well.

House and Senate negotiators apparently still hope to stop the across-the-board cuts — at least for while. But this is a far cry from an agenda that would bring the very high poverty rate back down to where it was when we rang in the 21st century.

* The SPM report cites 15.1% for the official measure, noting that this is not statistically significant from the previously reported figure. Several other official measure figures in the report also differ from those the Census Bureau earlier reported.

The differences, if I understand correctly, reflect the fact that the SPM universe includes children under 15 who are living in a household with adults to whom they’re not related. For comparability, I’m using the official measure figures in the SPM report here.


Census Bureau Reports 16.1% Poverty Rate

November 15, 2012

Another round of news on poverty in the U.S. — this time from the Census Bureau’s latest report on the results of analyses using its Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Once again, the national poverty rate is higher than the rate the Bureau earlier reported, using its official measure — 16.1%, as compared to 15.1%.

In other words, about 3 million more people — a total of nearly 49.7 million — were living in poverty last year.

On the other hand, the percent of people living in extreme poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, is 1.5% lower than the official measure shows.

We get a mixed picture for state-level poverty rates, for which the Bureau uses three-year averages. Some of the rates are higher than the official rate. Some lower.

The rate for the District of Columbia rises sharply — from 19% to 23.2%. This is higher than the rate for any state except California.

As I’ve written before, the official measure sets poverty thresholds at three times the annually adjusted costs of what used to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest food plan.

The SPM starts from the costs of basic living expenses, adjusted for differences among major geographic areas and also differences in living situations, e.g., renting versus owning.

To these, it adds some other “necessary expenses,” e.g., payroll taxes, health care co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs.

On the other side of the ledger, it takes account of not only cash income, but some “near-money” federal benefits like tax credits and also some in-kind benefits, e.g., food stamps, two forms of child nutrition assistance, housing subsidies.

And it uses actual household size, rather than counting only household members who are related to one another, as the official measure does.

These differences explain not only the difference between the overall SPM rate and the official rate, but shifts in rates for different age and race/ethnicity groups.

We see, for example, that:

  • The child poverty rate drops from 22.3% to 18.1%, reducing the number of children in poverty by about 3 million.
  • The poverty rate for seniors rises from 8.7% to 15.1%, increasing the number of poor people 65 and older by somewhat more than 2.6 million.
  • The poverty rate for blacks drops from 27.8% to 25.7% — still far higher than the non-Hispanic white rate of 11%, but now 2.3% lower than the rate for Hispanics.
  • The poverty rate for Asians rises from 12.3% to 16.9% — the largest percent change for any race/ethnicity group reported.
  • For children, the extreme poverty rate is less than half what it is under the official measure — 5.1%, as compared to 10.3%.
  • For seniors, however, the extreme poverty rate rises — from 2.3% to 4.3%.

This year’s report is unusually timely because it gives us a read on the anti-poverty effects of some benefits that are at immediate risk. It tells us that:

  • Food stamp benefits lifted more than 4.6 million people, including  about 2.1 million children, out of poverty last year.
  • Well over 8.6 million more people, including nearly 4.7 million children, would have fallen below the poverty threshold if their family’s disposable income hadn’t been boosted by refundable tax credits.
  • Unemployment insurance benefits kept nearly 3.4 million people out of poverty — mostly adults, but about 963,400 children too.
  • And Social Security — the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got — accounted for 25.6 million fewer poor people than there would have been without its benefits. Poverty rates for all age groups would have been higher. The rate for seniors would have soared to 54.1%.

So there are the benefits. Now here are the risks.

The farm bills now pending in Congress would cut food stamp benefits for at least half a million households — 1.3 million if the House version prevails. The House bill would also mean no more food stamps at all for as many as 3 million people.

As you’re well aware, the Bush-era tax cuts are expiring. We can be quite confident that most will be renewed.

But Congressional Republicans want to extend earlier versions of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, not the expanded versions that have made a significant difference to low-income working families.

The federal program that funds unemployment insurance benefits for longer-term jobless workers will also soon expire. Some two million workers and their families may face the new year with no source of cash income.

Lead Republicans in Congress are about to sit at the bargaining table with their Democratic counterparts and White House officials to thrash out an alternative to the so-called fiscal cliff.

They say they’ll be amenable to increased revenues (not to be confused with higher tax rates for the wealthiest 2%).

But the deal must also include “real changes to the financial structure of entitlement programs” — apparently something along the lines of the recommendations in the plan produced by the co-chairs of the President’s fiscal commission, a.k.a. Bowles-Simpson.

These recommendations would cut Social Security retirement benefits in several different ways. With the average benefit now only $1,230 a month, we could see more seniors in poverty if the Democrats don’t hold firm to the position they’re taking now.

NOTE: A couple of the benefits impact figures reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities are a bit higher than mine. This is also true for figures reported by the Center for American Progress. I’m at a loss to explain the discrepancies.


Census Bureau Reports Record Number Of Poor Americans

September 13, 2011

The Census Bureau opened its press briefing on the just-released 2010 income, poverty and health insurance data with a brief statement from the director. The yearly figures, he said, show “how day-to-day people are faring under changing economic conditions.”

By almost every measure, the answer is not well at all. Between 2009 and 2010:

  • The poverty rate rose from 14.3% to 15.1%. The new rate is the highest since 1993.
  • The number of people in poverty increased by 2.6 million. The total number now — 46.2 million — is the largest in the 52 years Census has been publishing such figures.
  • The percent of people in deep poverty, i.e., with incomes at or below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold,* increased to a record-high 6.7%.

As in the past, poverty rates were considerably higher in some population groups than others. For example:

  • The child poverty rate increased to 22% — up from 18% in 2007.
  • The number of children in poverty increased by 950,000 to a 16.4 million.
  • Nearly 7.4 million of these children (9.9%) were in deep poverty.
  • The poverty rate for blacks was well over two-and-a-half times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 27.4% as compared to 9.9%.
  • The deep poverty rate for blacks was more than three times higher — 13.5% as compared to 4.3%.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 26.6% and the deep poverty rate 10.9%.

A reporter asked the Census Bureau experts whether they could explain why the poverty rate rose. Was told that the Bureau produced statistics, not explanations. One factor suggested, however, was the growing number of people who’d had no — or virtually no — work during the entire year.

In 2010, 86.7 million people over the age of 16 worked less than one week — an increase of more than 3.4 million over 2009 and of more than 11.3 million over 2007. Not surprisingly, 23.9% of these potential workers lived below the poverty threshold.

Seems to me another arrow in the quiver of those of us who want Congress to pass the President’s jobs bill.

Yet the bill, as he himself says, “can’t solve all our nation’s woes.” He’s referring, as White House communications indicate, to the dwindling economic security of the middle class.

The economic woes of low-income Americans pre-date the recession too. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, the poverty rate has been rising for most of this decade — in boom years as well as downturns.

We’ll need a comprehensive strategy — and a smart one — to do something about this. We’ll need a broad-based commitment. Things as they are, I’m not holding my breath.

* The Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds are more complex than the poverty guidelines used in determining eligibility for federal benefits programs. Using one of the Bureau’s weighted averages, we see that a family of four in deep poverty would have had an income of no more than $11,157 for the year.


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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