One-third of Americans are poor or near-poor

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New data shows that there are far more Americans living on the edge of poverty than official figures claim

by Ian Angus

In Too Many People?, in a chapter discussing the myth that environmental destruction is driven by individual overconsumption, Simon Butler and I wrote:

“In 2009, 43.6 million Americans lived on incomes below the official poverty line. If anyone is consuming the world into ecological catastrophe, it isn’t them.” (p. 142)

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 43.6 million is a substantial understatement. A new “Supplementary Poverty Measure” more than doubles the number of Americans who must be automatically exempted from any charge of “overconsumption.”

The New York Times reports today:

When the Census Bureau this month released a new measure of poverty, meant to better count disposable income, it began altering the portrait of national need. Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.

After a lost decade of flat wages and the worst downturn since the Great Depression, the findings can be thought of as putting numbers to the bleak national mood — quantifying the expressions of unease erupting in protests and political swings. They convey levels of economic stress sharply felt but until now hard to measure.

The Census Bureau, which published the poverty data two weeks ago, produced the analysis of those with somewhat higher income at the request of The New York Times. The size of the near-poor population took even the bureau’s number crunchers by surprise.

“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” said Trudi J. Renwick, the bureau’s chief poverty statistician. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.” ….

Patched together a half-century ago, the official poverty measure has long been seen as flawed. It ignores hundreds of billions the needy receive in food stamps, tax credits and other programs, and the similarly large sums paid in taxes, medical care and work expenses. The new method, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, counts all those factors and adjusts for differences in the cost of living, which the official measure ignores. ….

Of the 51 million who appear near poor under the fuller measure, nearly 20 percent were lifted up from poverty by benefits the official count overlooks. But more than half were pushed down from higher income levels: more than eight million by taxes, six million by medical expenses, and four million by work expenses like transportation and child care.

Read the full NYT article: “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census”