No Consensus on Poverty Census

By | Nov 9, 2011

I sometimes wonder if announcements from the government on embarrassing data related to poverty are intentionally confusing in order to shield the reality of hurt in this country.

Recently, the United States Census Bureau declared a new model to assess poverty. Two months ago, the Bureau announced that the number of poor Americans was 46.2 million. Now, they say the number is 49 million.

What is an additional 3 million in the grand scheme of a country that has 312 million inhabitants? So the government added one percent to their original count, does it really make a difference?

For those of us who are not Certified Public Accountants (CPA) or professors public policy, the numbers don’t really register. Somewhere in the perplexity of data gathering, the model for counting poor Americans changed from just looking at food and wage standards, to adding government benefits and household expenses.

That certainly makes sense. But why didn’t the government change the standard years ago? We all know food and a paycheck is not the only way to know if a person is poor. If I live in a part of the country where renting an apartment takes two-thirds of my paycheck every month, then I am going to be poorer than my fellow Americans living in more affordable parts of the country.

I am just wondering if government officials have been trying to hide the truth – the fact that this superpower of a country has more poor Americans than we care to admit. Is adding another one percent to this country’s poverty count a way to amend the truth?

With my non-CPA thinking, all I know is this. Last month, the agency I run performed a survey of people living on the streets in a neighborhood just northwest of downtown Los Angeles. You could have labeled this a poverty census, or what many also call a homeless registry.

How do I know poverty in America is acute? Certainly, not by numbers revealed by the government.

Instead, we found a father and a teenage son living under a bridge within a residential neighborhood that contained homes valued at $600,000. Dad could barely feed the family with temporary labor jobs, and his son was a struggling student at the local community college. Certainly, this hurting family would be categorized as poor, in any data-driven census model. Their lack of food and a tiny paycheck that couldn’t even allow them to pay for a household, positioned them at this country’s lowest socio-economic scale.

If a social safety net in a super-powerful country really worked, a hardworking parent and college student would not be going home to a dirt floor with bridge girders as their roof.

We can hide the reality that 49 million, or 46 million, or 100 million Americans are living in poverty, through confusing numbers and conflicting data-driven mathematical formulas. With the thousands of other words and numbers I read each day on Google News and the local paper, I might just skim over these befuddling numbers.

But no compassionate American who values human dignity, hard work, and is proud of this country, would turn a back on a father working hard to earn a buck, and a son studying hard to create a future life that includes living in a home.

I wish the Census would consist of more than numbers. What we really need in this country is a census of stories.

Photo credit: eltpics