How many of the poor are always with us?

Here’s something that won’t be news to those of us who work in social services: America has more poor people than it’s willing to recognize.  Take a look at this New York Times editorial on the subject.  Two things are striking: first, that the proportion of the population living in poverty now, during what’s defined as an economic expansion, is higher than it was at the depths of the last recession; second, that when the authoritative National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council poverty counting methods are used–which unlike the Census Bureau’s figures include government support payments as income and payment for medical care as outflow–people are actually poorer than we thought, not richer.  So much for the people arguing that poverty numbers overstate the problem because poor people get all those Food Stamps. 

Wait: there are Census Bureau figures, and then there are authoritative figures?  That’s right: the National Academy recommendations, issued at the government’s own request in 1995 and confirmed in 2005, are sitting on the shelf.  The measures of poverty that matter–the ones that qualify, or disqualify, people for government assistance–are inaccurate, and known to be so.   

Apparently our national position on poverty is: let’s close our eyes and the problem will disappear.

But, as the Shriver Center on Poverty Law notes, the miscounting (that is, undercounting) of the poor means women and children suffer most. 

Advocacy homework assignment for 501(c)(3)s serving poor people: have your Board members write, call or visit their Congresspeople to urge adoption of the National Academy’s methodology.  Find out which Congressional committee oversees the Census Bureau and write, call or visit its chair to ask why the Bureau remains committed to inaccurary in this field of reporting.  As long as you’re not endorsing a candidate or demanding passage of a particular bill, your tax-exempt status is safe as houses.

For social service agencies, this is a matter of self-interest: the more officially poor people there are, the more government support they’ll get–and the fewer food baskets, shelter beds and free checkups you’ll need to provide.

Addendum: I did my own homework.

April 18, 2007

The Honorable William Lacy (Bill) Clay, Jr.
Chair, Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives

United States House of Representatives
434 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-2501

Dear Representative Lacy:

I am writing to urge you as chair of the Subcommittee charged with oversight of the Census Bureau to ascertain why the Bureau refuses to use the most current scientifically valid standards for computing poverty in this country.

(continued at the jump)

And, for extra credit: Are any of these Subcommittee members your Congressperson?

Member Name

William Lacy (Bill) Clay, Jr. (D-MO) [Chairman]202-225-2406 phone/202 226-3717 FAX

Paul E. Kanjorski (D-PA) 202-225-6511 phone/ 202-225-0764 FAX

Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) 202-225-7944 phone/202-225-4709 FAX

John Yarmuth (D-KY) 202-225-5401 phone/ 202-225-5776 FAX

Paul Hodes, II (D-NH) 202-225-5206 phone/202-225-2946 FAX

Minority Members (Republicans)

Mike Turner (R-OH) [Ranking Member] 202-225-6465 phone/202-225-6754 FAX

Christopher Cannon (R-UT) 202-225-7751 phone/202-225-5629 FAX

Bill Sali (R-ID) 202-225-6611 phone/202-225-3029 FAX

As you probably know, and as a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, the proportion of the population living in poverty now, during what’s defined as an economic expansion, is higher than it was at the depths of the last recession. And when the authoritative National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council poverty counting methods are used–which unlike the Census Bureau’s figures include government support payments as income and payment for medical care as outflow–the ranks of the poor swell even more.

How can it be that figures from the Census Bureau are not authoritative? Why are the National Academy recommendations, issued at the government’s own request in 1995 and confirmed in 2005, sitting on the shelf? Why do we go on qualifying, or disqualifying, people for government assistance on the basis of measures known to be inaccurate?

It may be that legislation is required to compel the Bureau to abandon its incorrect measures and adopt current definitions. It may be that the Bureau itself is not the problem, and that it continues to produce false figures because other government agencies, charged with administering relief programs, require them. But your Subcommittee can determine the problem and craft a solution that doesn’t require pretending that closing our eyes to poverty will make it disappear.

Allow me to make you aware that a copy of this letter will be posted on the blog The Nonprofiteer: www.nonprofiteer.typepad.com.  Thanks for your attention to this critical matter.

Sincerely,

Kelly Kleiman

 

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