School & District Management

New Census Measure Finds Fed Programs Lower Child Poverty

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 07, 2011 4 min read
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Federal social programs are keeping nearly 2 million American children out of poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s first new poverty calculation measure in more than four decades.

The Census Bureau released its new poverty measure this morning, intended to supplement the official count used by the education field for everything from achievement research to setting eligibility for education programs like the Head Start preschool program and Title I school grants for disadvantaged students. The new measure will not affect eligibility or grant allocation for those programs, according to Census research economist Kathleen Short, but it does give a much more comprehensive picture of who is poor in America and how they are affected by housing, child care, and other daily costs.

For 2009, the overall poverty rate rose a bit under the new measure, from 14.5 percent to 15.3 percent of Americans living in poverty in 2009. Yet it showed a better outlook for American children: Under the official poverty calculation, 21.2 percent of all children under the age of 18 lived in poverty in 2009, more than 9.8 million. Taking into account the new supplementary measure, the number of children in poverty dropped to 7.98 million, or 17.3 percent of Americans under 18.

However, using the supplemental poverty measure or the official count, child poverty is still on the rise. By the supplemental yardstick, from 2009 to 2010, the number of children under age 18 increased .9 percent, or 671,000. That’s faster than the rise in poverty overall from 2009-2010, which was 2.6 million, or .8 percent, yet far less than the increase in child poverty in the last year using the official poverty rate, which counted more than 3.2 million more children in poverty in 2010 than did the new supplemental measure

“The one very important message from the data is, although the number of children deemed to be living in poverty is reduced [compared to the official rate], it really is because the safety net programs are doing the job they were intended to do,” said Sheila Smith, the director of early childhood programs for the New York City-based National Center for Children in Poverty.

“We have children moving out of poverty under this new measure because this new measure is taking into account families’ receipt of safety net resources. What you have to conclude is these resources are helping reduce poverty,” she said.

The official poverty measure, which has been mostly unchanged since 1969, looks at the average grocery costs for a family of three or more, as a percentage of their gross income and cash benefits, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The Census Bureau never intended the official poverty count to be based solely on food costs, and it has been working on the new supplemental measure since the mid-1990s, relying in part on changes recommended by the National Academies of Science and an inter-agency working group.

By contrast, the new supplemental measure considers a family in poverty based on its spending on basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and utilities, while also taking into account other needed expenses, such as child care costs and medical bills—both of which can have much larger effects on a family’s daily budget than standard groceries.

Among other differences, the supplemental poverty measure takes into account:

• Regional differences in the cost of living, based on data updated every five years;
• Alternative types of family structure, such as single-parent households and cohabiting parents with children;
• Whether a family rents or owns its home with or without a mortgage;
• Income after required expenses, such as federal and state income taxes, child support payments, medical out-of-pocket costs, and work transportation costs.

For example, the new measure subtracts the cost of unsubsidized child care from parents’ income, as a required work expense. With the annual cost of unsubsidized care running from $3,500 to more than $7,000 per child, Smith said, “We can assume if we didn’t have public funding going into these programs, parents would have to pay the lion’s share of those programs.”

Yet the new measure also includes in a family’s income in-kind benefits which the official account does not cover, such as food programs like the national free and reduced-price school breakfast and lunch and supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, as well as housing subsidies and home-heating assistance programs.

As a result, the portrait of poverty in the country starts to shift; older Americans have higher medical costs, and children are more likely to receive support from social programs.

“It’s a more credible measure,” said Ron Haskins, a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and longtime poverty researcher. “There will be tons of applications in thinking about programs and poverty.”

With the education world still digging into the effects of concentrated poverty on the achievement gap, and policymakers taking a closer look at how well programs like Title I focus on the students who need it most, the new Census measure is likely to be a goldmine of information for education researchers and policymakers alike.

The Census Bureau will release updated 2010 poverty figures based on the supplemental measure later this morning. I’ll be updating live via Twitter at @sarahdsparks and here after the briefing.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.