EDITORIAL: Poverty by any measure?

York Dispatch

More than 10 percent of York County residents live in poverty, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data.

The local figure is nothing to cheer about, although it is lower than both the state (about 13.5 percent) and national (15.5 percent) estimates.

But is it even real?

Do any of these numbers tossed about accurately reflect the number of Americans who would be considered impoverished by the rest of us?

No, according to Laura Steck, an associate professor of sociology and behavioral sciences at York College.

She and other critics point out the Census Bureau sets the federal poverty line using a formula written in 1963 and based on a "minimum food diet."

It does not, according to the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty, consider other pertinent information, such as:

•The depth of economic need of those who fall below the threshold.

•Modern costs, such as taxes, work expenses, insurance and out-of-pocket medical expenses.

•Geographic differences in cost of living.

•Changes in the standard of living.

•Households where members are not related by blood or marriage.

"The poverty line is not a very good representation of what it actually costs today for people to make a living," said Steck, who recently held a "poverty simulation" at Logos Academy in York City.

"For people living just above the poverty line," she said, "they don't qualify for benefits, but they don't make enough to meet their needs."

Even the Census Bureau recognizes the flaws in its current formula, and since the mid-1990s has been experimenting with different measures in hopes of getting a more accurate picture of poverty in America.

The most recent attempt is the Supplemental Poverty Measure. It was introduced in 2010 "to provide an alternative view of poverty in the United States that better reflects life in the 21st century, including contemporary social and economic realities and government policy," according to the Institute for Research on Poverty.

When the numerous factors ignored by the official formula are considered, poverty is in fact more prevalent. With one exception — children — the Supplemental Poverty Measure consistently finds poverty rates higher for all age groups (much higher for Americans 65 and older) than the official rates show.

The supplemental measure is intended to provide a more complete picture, and is not used to determine if someone qualifies for benefits or is eligible for programs.

But it does seem to fit with what people on the front lines in the fight against poverty are seeing.

So knowing the current formula is flawed and outdated — Congress first tried to address it in the early 1990s — why not simply make the supplemental measure the official standard?

We need to know exactly what we're up against if we intend to win this fight.