September 02, 2005

Calculating Poverty

The other day, Brad Delong took Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post to task for doing a bit of pre-emptive quibbling over the latest set of poverty statistics. DeLong's right in a sense; saying that the numbers understate this or overstate that doesn't change the fact that the numbers get the basic story right, that poverty's on the upswing and that we have a real problem on our hands. But it would be nice to get as accurate numbers as humanly possible.

To that end, I liked the approach that Sylvia Allegretto of EPI took here. She drew up a "budget" for families, figuring out how much it would cost to purchase basic necessities—housing, transportation, food, child care, health care, etc.—in various parts of the country, so as to factor out variations in regional standards of living, and then looked to see how many families in each of those places actually make enough to meet the budget. Quite a few don't: Whereas the official poverty rate sits at around 12.7 percent nationwide, Allegretto found that 29.7 percent of families didn't make enough to meet the budget and buy basic necessities. One flaw here, I think, is that she doesn't seem to have included non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, in her calculation of family income—something that's important to get right when it comes time to discuss what needs to be done, from a policy standpoint. But the overall snapshot is, I think, pretty good.

Glancing through the numbers, it turns out that the Midwest has the "smallest" problem in this regard, with a shocking-yet-lower-than-average 23.4 percent of families unable to meet the budget, as compared with well over 30 percent in the Northeast, South, and West, which may explain some of those "What's the Matter With Kansas?" mysteries. (In fact, two of the bluest states, California and New York, actually had the biggest poverty problems by Allegretto's measure.) Meanwhile, 42.5 percent of families who work less than full-time year-round sit below the budget, but lest anyone think that simply getting a job will solve everything, 22.8 percent of families working full-time, year-round still couldn't afford basic necessities.
-- Brad Plumer 11:51 PM || ||