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The Poverty Rate Ignores Programs That Fight Poverty

New U.S. poverty numbers come out on Tuesday. But what, exactly, do those numbers measure?

Consider the case of Ann Valdez. She's a 47-year-old single mom who lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with her teenage son. She doesn't have a job. She gets a cash payment of about $130 every two weeks from the government. That's all that's counted for her income in the government's poverty measure.

But Valdez also gets $367 a month in food stamps. The government pays $283 a month for her apartment, which she says would rent for $1,100 or so on the open market. And the government pays for her health care, through Medicaid.

Valdez still has a tough time making ends meet. "We are not living the life of Riley," she says. "Poverty is like being trapped in a room you can't get out of, with straps restraining you, tight enough that you feel sometimes you can't breathe."

Ann Valdez lives with her teenage son in Coney Island, Brooklyn

hide captionAnn Valdez lives with her teenage son in Coney Island, Brooklyn

Pam Fessler / NPR

Still, if you include the value of her benefits, Valdez's income is far higher than the official poverty numbers suggest. This raises a question: If you count all her benefits, is Valdez still living in poverty?

A few years ago, the New York City developed its own poverty measure that accounts for government benefits, and also considers the cost of living. (The federal government has developed a similar measure, but still uses the old measure for the official poverty numbers.)

The idea, says New York's deputy mayor Linda Gibbs, is to know "how many people are living below what we believe is the minimum level of sustenance necessary to make ends meet. And that's not to have a big fancy life. It's not even to have like an okay life. It's just meeting the bare minimums."

Others are trying to measure poverty in ways that go beyond income. Researchers at Columbia are following 2,000 New York households for two years, tracking what they call "material hardship." Can families keep the lights on? Has anyone missed a meal, or skipped a doctor's visit because there's not enough money?

Linda Gibbs says policymakers need to be guided by measures that go beyond the basic federal poverty numbers. "If you're in the business of saying, 'Poverty is a problem, we want to overcome poverty, we want to help people to not live in poverty,' you've got to know what you're talking about," she says.

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