Lies, Damn Lies, & Poverty Statistics: The Census Bureau Is Right to Reconsider the Official Poverty Line

Source: Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Dollars and Sense, no. 289, July/August 2010

Statistics matter. Take the newly popularized statistic, the “under­employment rate,” that the media began to report during the Great Recession. This rate adds part-time workers who can’t find the full-time work they want and people who have given up looking for work altogether to the officially unemployed. In April the underemployment rate reached 17%, indicating that workers are feel­ing the economic downturn more severely than suggested by the 9.9% official unemployment rate. The official poverty line similarly misses the mark in measuring economic suffering in the United States. Poverty experts have long recognized that the poverty income threshold published by the Census Bureau marks an excessively severe level of economic deprivation. But the problem isn’t just that the pov­erty line is too low. Anyone can multiply the poverty line by two and use that to define poverty; that’s how eligibility for subsidy programs like reduced-price school lunches is determined. The offi­cial poverty line, however, actually rep­resents a living standard that deterio­rates year after year.

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