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Where do we draw the line when it comes to poverty?

A man walks down the street collecting cans in Reading, Pennsylvania, 2011.
A man walks down the street collecting cans in Reading, Pennsylvania, 2011.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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In September, the Census Bureau released some sobering numbers about poverty in America gleaned from the 2010 Census – notably, that the number of poor Americans had soared by 10 million over four decades. But the measure by which the Census Bureau has traditionally decided what poverty really means is less than watertight.

Think of it as an archaic ballpark measurement that leaves out things like food stamps, taxes and medical care and does not account for geographical differences in the cost of living.

On Monday, the Census Bureau aims to change all that with the release of a new set of metrics to determine where the poverty line really is. All-in-all, the new benchmarks show that there are fewer Americans living in abject poverty, but that the numbers of those who are on the brink are far greater than previously believed. But even the new metrics are being scrutinized by poverty analysts. “The official measure no longer corresponds to reality. It doesn’t get either side of the equation right – how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data,” said Jane Waldfogerl, a professor of social work at Columbia University. The reality on the ground presents many hard luck tales – like examples of families raising children on $18,000 a year who do not qualify as poor. As the government looks for places to trim the budget, where the poverty line is set will determine the eligibility for benefits for millions of Americans.


Where is the poverty line? And how much does it matter to those close to or below it?


Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work, Columbia University