Like many social and economic indicators, the “poverty rate” is, at best, an incomplete and imperfect measure. Yet it is an extremely important indicator that is used to determine eligibility for dozens of federal, state, and local programs such as Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and certain parts of Medicaid. Measuring poverty also allows us to identify those in need of assistance, track changes in poverty rates across the population, target interventions to help individuals and families escape poverty, and evaluate programs and policies implemented to address poverty. The “official” poverty rate, first adopted in 1969, is based on a list of income thresholds for families of different sizes; the thresholds are updated annually to recognize inflation. For example, in 2011 the threshold for a family of four is $23,021. The definition used in this measure uses money income before taxes and tax credits and excludes capital gains and noncash benefits such as food stamps and housing assistance. Some details about who is in poverty using the “official” Census Bureau measure are provided below.
Of the 46.2 million Americans in poverty in 2011 the largest number are White (31 million). 13 million Hispanics, 11 million Blacks, and 2 million Asians are in poverty. The official poverty rate is 15 percent. Of course that’s an average and averages often hide as much as they reveal. So here are some differences in the poverty rate for different groups of people. Among racial/ethnic groups, 28 percent of Blacks, 25 percent of Hispanics (any race), 13 percent of Whites, and 12 percent of Asians are poor. The poverty rate for our nation’s children is 22 percent. While 6 percent of married-couple families were poor, the rate for families with a single female householder with no husband present is 31 percent. The poverty rate for those with a disability is 29 percent. For those working full-time the rate is 3 percent; the rate for those who have not worked at all during the year is 33 percent. It’s only when you start to look at poverty across these segments of the population that the bigger picture becomes meaningful. Then, instead of just faceless averages and generalizations, you can start to visualize the people affected–the how and why. Looking at the poverty numbers this way gives us clues to strategies that can help us combat it. // Richard J. Coley
(Adapted from Richard J. Coley and Bruce Baker, Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward, ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education, July 2013.)