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The New Poverty Level

Supplemental Poverty Measure: 49.1 Million Americans Poor

“In March of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would develop an alternative way to measure poverty. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which was released in November, is an attempt to update the current federal poverty measure that, it is generally agreed, is outdated and therefore underestimates the level of poverty in the U.S.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure is based on an updated market basket of goods that reflects changes in consumer spending since 1963. It takes into account household expenses such as taxes, housing, utilities, health care costs, child support payments, and work-related expenses (i.e., travel and child care). This is offset by including the value of government income supplements, such as subsidized school lunch programs, energy assistance programs, housing subsidies, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously food stamps), that are not accounted for in the official poverty measure. The result is that the new calculation more accurately reflects how low-income Americans are actually getting by.

Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 49.1 million, or 16 percent, lived in poverty in 2010, significantly more than the official measure released in September that found 46.6 million people, or 15 percent, lived in poverty. Given that the number of people in poverty in 2010 under the existing measure was the highest that it has been in the 52 years since this information has been collected, this new measure’s estimate is even more dramatic.

Because the Supplemental Poverty Measure takes into account in-kind benefits aimed at improving the economic situation of the poor, for the first time it is possible to see the impact such programs have on poverty. Applying the new measure, almost 7 million more people would have lived in poverty in 2009 and 2010 absent government action.

These figures prove that public benefit programs are an important factor in poverty alleviation. Without such programs the level of poverty in the U.S. would be significantly higher. Especially in today’s economy, the supplemental measure highlights the need for such programs and reiterates the fact that the nation cannot afford further cuts in them.

Learn more about the Supplemental Poverty Measure and read the data.