Biloxi Sun Hearld, May 4, 2008: Federal poverty measures due for overhaul

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— How poverty is measured in the United States is too outdated to be accurate, said a national children’s research group, suggesting that the number of disadvantaged Americans is underestimated.

The original measurement was established in the 1960s, based on a calculation that families spent one-third of their incomes on food. This value was multiplied by three, and became the federal poverty level, said the group. But over the years, other costs have crept up, including transportation, health care, housing and child care. The group said food now represents one-seventh of total income.

According to census calculations, in 1968, a family of four was considered at the poverty level at approximately $3,553. In 2008, the level was $21,200 for a family of four.

Nancy Cauthen, deputy director of Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty said research shows that families need twice that to meet basic needs. The Center wants the calculation to be changed, both to reflect the overall and the local cost of living increases. A person in New York City is measured by the same federal formula as a person in rural Mississippi.

“Most analysts will tell you that today’s poverty thresholds are inhumanely low,” she said.

Because families spend differently, she said, those who are living in poverty are many times worse off than those living in poverty 40 years ago.

In Mississippi, the median household income, the middle point in which one-half of incomes are below and one-half are above was $34,278 in 2004, about 25 percent less than the national median. Based on those measurements, about one in five Mississippians live in poverty.

The National Center for Children in Poverty, a self-funded major program initiative of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, was founded in 1989.

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