The Donaldsons: A Case of Misleading Numbers

Brian and Tina Donaldson at their apartment in Oakland, Calif.

Brian and Tina Donaldson at their apartment in Oakland, Calif. Elaine Korry, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elaine Korry, NPR

In part three of NPR's Hunger in America series, NPR's Elaine Korry reports from Oakland, Calif., that the high cost of housing in urban areas can lead to a tradeoff between food and rent. She profiles Brian and Tina Donaldson.

Brian Donaldson lost his job as a computer programmer several years ago, and chronic health problems have prevented him from finding an equivalent job. Brian also feels he is stuck in his high-rent apartment. Landlords may be reluctant to lease to a person without a job and a messy credit record.

Hunger in America Series

The Oakland, Calif., couple's struggle to keep food on the table sheds light on a deeper question of how to adequately measure poverty.

Tina's unemployment benefits ran out last week. That leaves them with only Brian's monthly disability check of $1,633. After paying a rent of $1,320 and $200 in utilities, the Donaldsons are left with just a little more than $100 per month. Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Donaldsons are living nearly $7,000 above the poverty threshold. That's because the bureau's statistics are not adjusted for different costs of living across the country.

California, where the Donaldsons live, has one of the highest costs of living in the country. Many Californians simply cannot keep up, even though they earn higher wages.

Deborah Reed, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, says the discrepancy between state and federal measurements is misleading. "If we make adjustments for cost of living, it changes the notion of California as a place with moderate poverty to a place with significantly higher rates." The latest Census numbers put California's poverty rate at just above 13 percent. Reed believes the number would more accurately be 15 to 16 percent.

Meanwhile, Tina is looking for a job and Brian, who owes $300,000 in medical bills, is filing bankruptcy.

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