- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The new Census Bureau poverty numbers are out, and the 2007 rate of 12.5 percent is not statistically different from 2006.

Psst, here’s the news. The U.S. poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much for 40 years. It’s ranged from 11 percent to 15 percent.

I think this is a huge problem, but probably not for the reasons you think.

I am worried that we are poised to trap another generation of Americans into “poverty fatigue.”

By “fatigue,” I am referring to folks in poverty as well as folks who would like to help them climb out. It’s not good for either group to feel like there’s no hope.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You can’t solve a problem until you first learn to measure it.”

Well, many noteworthy economists say we do a lousy job of assessing poverty in this country.

“It is not too strong a statement to say that, 43 years after they were developed, the poverty thresholds are nonsensical numbers,” economist Rebecca Blank said in a recent paper.

The poverty measure is “absolutely rotten,” Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins said during an Aug. 26 briefing.

The poverty calculation stinks, experts say, because it uses an obsolete formula. It doesn’t factor in taxes or modern expenses, nor does it count generous noncash “aid” given to poor people, like housing subsidies, health care subsidies or food stamps.

If poverty were measured using a new, reasonable formula, it would probably drop to 8 percent, maybe lower, says Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Am I saying the U.S. poor aren’t as numerous - or as poor - as we think? In fact, I am, and it’s not an opinion.

When federal researchers look at what poor Americans earn and what they spend each year, the numbers don’t square. In 2005, for instance, households with $9,676 in income somehow spent $19,120.

Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector likes to catalog the living conditions of America’s poor, as reported in government surveys. Typically, their homes include air conditioning, a microwave oven, color television(s), cable or satellite hookup, DVD player and washer and dryer, Mr. Rector says. Poor Americans are also likely to own at least one car and tell the government they have adequate food and money for essential needs.

Of course, details like these don’t look good on fundraising appeals, so maybe you haven’t seen them before.

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