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Examining the Supplemental Poverty Measure Numbers
At Bread, we are thankful for the many ways in which our country comes together on Thanksgiving. Charitable giving, food drives, holiday meals at soup kitchens, and the like allow the vast majority of Americans to participate in this celebration of harvest and thanksgiving.
Tomorrow, many families will also put food on their tables with the help of federal programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Poverty Nutrition Assistance, formerly known as food stamps). When the holiday season ends, and charitable giving decreases as we return to the busyness of our lives, those programs will continue to provide vital assistance to those in need.
And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), released earlier this month, these programs are more crucial than ever.
The SPM is an attempt by the Census Bureau to measure poverty in a way that accounts for the ways in which our lives have changed over the last several decades. The “official” poverty measure was developed in the early 1960s, and though this measure is adjusted annually for inflation, it has more or less remained the same since it was created.
The SPM takes into account the following considerations that the Official Poverty Measure does not include:
- Government policies that alter the resources available to families—payroll taxes which reduce net income but also income-supports which ameliorate the impacts of poverty, such as tax credits and SNAP benefits (food stamps).
- Expenses that are necessary in holding a job, such as transportation and childcare
- Medical costs
- Variations in household units and support, such as child support payments, co-habitation, and multiple family households
- Geographic differences in the cost-of-living across the country
Here’s how the numbers from the SPM stack up against the official poverty measure:
According to the SPM, 16.1 percent of the U.S. population (49.7 million people) lived in poverty in 2011; data from the official poverty measure were 15.1 percent of the population (46.6 million people). In other words, 3.1 million more people lived in poverty, according to the SPM than the older official poverty measure.
- Fewer children lived in poverty in 2011, according to the SPM, as compared to official poverty data: 18.1 percent of children (13.4 million total) under 18, as measured by the SPM; 22.3 percent (16.5 million total children) by the official measure.
- Slightly more adults (ages 18-64) lived in poverty in 2011, according to the SPM: 15.5 percent (30.0 million total) by the SPM; 13.7 percent (26.5 million total) by the official measure.
- More older Americans lived in poverty in 2011, according to the SPM: 15.1 percent of adults 65 and above (6.2 million total) by the SPM; 8.7 percent (3.6 million total) for the official measure.
The SPM also helps measure the efficacy of anti-poverty programs. Among the findings:
- Without refundable tax credits, such as the earned income tax credit, child poverty would rise from 18.1 percent to 24.4 percent
- Without SNAP, the overall poverty rate would increase from 16.1 percent to 17.6 percent.
During the holidays, our country does an admirable job of remembering those in need, but direct assistance alone can't lift families out of poverty. As the SPM data shows, anti-poverty programs help the millions of families and children who are at risk of hunger—not only during the holiday season, but year-round.
Kyle Dechant is a fellow in Bread for the World's government relations department.
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