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New Poverty Stats: Is Florida Really Third Poorest State in Nation? It Depends

November 17, 2012 - 6:00pm

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released a follow-up report to its most recent study on poverty rates in the United States. The proposed Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)claims it measures poverty more accurately than the official statistics the federal government currently relies on.

And the picture it paints of Florida is less than flattering.

The Sunshine State is supposedly the third-poorest state in the nation, with about one of five Floridians (19.5 percent) living below the poverty level. This is about 5 points higher than Florida's still-official poverty measure of 15.3 percent.

According to the SPM, California leads the nation with its poverty rate of 23.5 percent (as opposed to the official count of 16.3 percent), with Arizona following behind at 19.8 percent (officially 19.2 percent).

Nationally, there's not too much difference between the official and SPM counts: 15 percent and 15.8 percent, respectively.

Traditionally -- and, for now, still officially -- the poverty line is set by how much money a family would have to make in order to spend less than one-third of that income on a minimal diet ... in 1963. (The only significant change that has been made to that measure since that year has been annual inflation adjustments.)

The proposed SPM defines income differently than the official one. It includes pre-tax cash income, but adds to it supplemental income taken from government welfare programs, including Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP); the National School Lunch Program; the Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); housing subsidies; and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP). It then excludes from "income" the amount a family spends on taxes, child support, and expenses related to work, child-care, and health care.

More controversially, the SPM sets the poverty income threshold at how much a family with two children at the 33rd percentile of spending devotes to food, clothing, housing, and utilities, plus another 20 percent of this amount. The threshold is then adjusted to account for individual family sizes and the housing costs in each state.

That new threshold means these proposed new poverty numbers are "misleading," according to the Heritage Foundation, probably the nation's leading conservative think-tank.

"The new measure ... distorts the picture of poverty by placing income thresholds on an automatic elevator that climbs as overall income rises," Heritage researcher Rachel Sheffield writes. She says the new measure is designed to "ensure that 'poverty' cant be alleviated except by extreme income leveling. The new measure is designed to provide a never-ending argument for the left to insist that we must continue to 'spread the wealth.'"

Sheffield suggests that the government should be measuring poverty in terms of actual standard of living -- or, better yet, self-sufficiency -- instead of income inequality.

Still, one libertarian researcher told Sunshine State News that, in at least some respects, the SPM measure does represent an improvement over the still-official one.

"I think some of the principles behind the new measures are more sound than those behind the official numbers," says Dr. Samuel Staley, associate director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University and a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation, in an interview with Sunshine State News. "I think we're gong to go through a period where there's a lot of tweaking of our methods, but i think these numbers give us a better understanding of where families and households are, in the context of what income they actually have access to in the real world. I think we're going in the right direction in terms of how we think about poverty."

The SPM does not say why Florida ranks so high in the nation in terms of poverty, but Staley speculates it might have something to do with the state's very large immigrant population.

"Immigrants -- especially illegal immigrants -- are entering into the job market at a very low income base, so they're going to start out poorer than the native population," he says. "Also, typically illegal immigrant populations do not access public services at the same level as natives do, in terms of going to the welfare office and applying for food stamps or housing vouchers, and those sorts of things. If they don't access those services, they're going to be receiving less income from the government."

Staley warns, however, that there's still much that these numbers do not measure.

"What these numbers don't address is what happens to income over time for each of these individuals or families," he says. "What we tend to see happen is, the longer these immigrants work in the country, and learn how to meet their expenses, their income and standards of living tend to increase."

He also notes that the SPM is limited in that it still measures poverty in terms of income, rather than living standards.

"When we think about poverty, we can't just think of it relatively, in terms of income. We also have to look at what people have available to them," he insists. "Most poor people in the U.S. have access to refrigerators; that is a huge difference from where we were 40 or 50 years ago. Most people who are poor have cell phones. In terms of access to what we now consider basic necessities, our poor are in a very different situation than they were even one decade ago. That's an important part of the discussion."

Stayler says that discussion is confused precisely because of the competing ideological assumptions so many researchers and commentators bring to the table.

"Different people come from different perspectives and have different policy goals," he tells the News. "Those on the conservative and the libertarian side tend to look at poverty in the absolute sense: how people live day-to-day. But those on the left tend to define poverty in a relative sense, since their goal is equality: the distribution of income becomes as much a factor as the absolute level of income.

"That disagreement is not so much about data but about what the goals of government welfare policy should be: is it one of trying to achieve equity, or is it one of trying to alleviate hardship?"

Gov. Rick Scott's office directed questions on this issue to the Department of Economic Opportunity, whose deputy chief communications officer, James Miller, did not return comment on the SPM specifically. He did, however, tell Sunshine State News, "Floridas economy is moving in the right direction as the states unemployment rate declines each month and more Floridians find jobs."

Reach Eric Giunta at or at (954) 235-9116.

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