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48.7 million people live in poverty nationwide, supplemental measure shows

The U.S. Census Bureau Thursday released a supplemental poverty measure that shows 48.7 million people nationwide, or 15.5 percent, were living in poverty in 2013 -- down from 49.7 million, or 16 percent, the year before.

The supplemental poverty rate -- which factors in such income as non-cash government assistance and tax credits -- was higher than the official poverty rate, a common occurrence in the four years that the bureau has released the supplement.

The 2013 official poverty rate was 14.5 percent, with 45.3 million people in poverty. That was down from 15 percent the year before. The official poverty threshold for a family of four in 2013 was a household income of $23,834.

Local and national experts and advocates have long complained that the official poverty measure is inadequate because it does not take into account the variations in housing costs in different regions, as well as other expenses.

The formula for the official poverty measure, which multiplies the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 by three, has been updated only for inflation since the 1960s, and it includes only cash sources of income.

The supplemental measure includes cash income, tax credits and non-cash government assistance on the income side, and deducts "necessary expenses," such as taxes and out-of-pocket medical costs.

Michael Zweig, an economics professor at Stony Brook University who heads its Center for Study of Working Class Life, said the official poverty measure's reliance on food costs, which have risen more slowly than other expenses, such as housing, "understates the pressure and the experience of poverty."

He noted that the average housing cost on Long Island for a family of four is $2,000 to $2,500 a month, or about $30,000 annually.

"The federal government standard is a family should not spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing costs," Zweig said. That means a family of four on Long Island would need an income of about $90,000 -- a tall order for "ordinary, working people," he said.

Kathleen Short, a Census Bureau economist, said in a statement that the supplemental measure "helps policymakers and the public judge the effectiveness of social safety-net programs in a way that the official poverty measure cannot."

For instance, the bureau said that without adding Social Security benefits, the supplemental poverty rate would have been 8.6 percentage points higher.

New York was one of 13 states and the District of Columbia where the supplemental poverty rate for 2013 was higher than the statewide official poverty rates.

New York's supplemental poverty rate was 17.5 percent in 2013, higher than the state's official poverty rate of 16 percent. Both rates for the state were calculated over a three-year average, 2011 to 2013.


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