Government programs such as food stamps do help some people, especially children, but even so 16% of American children are living in poverty, according to the supplemental report.
“These are bad numbers,” said Robert Doar, a fellow of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington D.C. “We can do better, we’re not doing better and that’s discouraging.”
The official poverty line was $23,283 last year for a family of four. Today’s Census report — known as the supplemental poverty measure — takes into account living costs in different parts of the country as well as what government benefits people receive.
The supplemental poverty line varies between urban and rural America. For example, the poverty level in major metropolitan levels is $30,000 or even higher in some locations because people have to pay more for food, shelter and transportation.
This more detailed look at poverty reveals an even uglier picture in some states.
California’s official poverty rate was 16% last year. Under the supplemental measure, its poverty rate is 23.4%. In other words, the high cost of living in California outweighs the government benefits poor Californians receive. Florida, New York and 10 other states saw their poverty rates rise between the official and supplemental measures.
Government benefits do make a difference for many Americans, the report shows. Food stamps and tax credits helped keep more than 13 million people out of poverty. Social Security put almost 27 million Americans out of poverty.
Conversely, out-of-pocket medical expenses are putting about 11 million people into poverty, according to the Census Bureau.
But the real issue for the poor is employment, says Doar. Although government benefits are lifting millions of people out of poverty, they are not putting people in the workforce.
“They’re not, and other policies are not, helping people work more and at higher wages so that they can escape poverty,” says Doar. Government benefits “do one thing well: they relieve material hardship. But they’re not helping people sufficiently go to work.”