New formula puts more elderly among the impoverished
Revision accounts for transportation and medical costs
WASHINGTON - The poverty rate among older Americans could be nearly twice as high as the traditional 10 percent level, according to a revision of a half-century-old formula for calculating medical costs and geographic variations in the cost of living.
The National Academy of Science’s formula, which is gaining credibility with public officials including some in the Obama administration, would put the poverty rate for Americans 65 and older at 18.6 percent, or 6.8 million people, compared with 9.7 percent, or 3.6 million people, under the existing measure. The original government formula, created in 1955, doesn’t take account of rising costs of medical care and other factors.
“It’s a hidden problem,’’ said Robin Talbert, president of the AARP Foundation, which provides job training and support to low-income seniors and is backing legislation that would adopt the new formula. “There are still many millions of older people on the edge, who don’t have what they need to get by.’’
If the academy’s formula is adopted, a more refined picture of American poverty could emerge that would capture everyday costs of necessities besides just food. The result could upend longstanding notions of those in greatest need and lead eventually to shifts in how billions of federal dollars for the poor are distributed for health, housing, nutrition, and child-care benefits.
The overall official poverty rate would increase, from 12.5 percent to 15.3 percent, for a total of 45.7 million people, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. Data on all segments, not only the elderly, would be affected, including:
■ The rate for children under 18 in poverty would decline slightly, to 17.9 percent.
■ Single mothers and their children, who disproportionately receive food stamps, would see declines in the rates of poverty because noncash aid would be taken into account. Low-income people who are working could see increases in poverty rates, a reflection of transportation and child-care costs.
■ Cities with higher costs of living would see higher poverty rates, while more rural areas in the Midwest and South may see declines.
■ The rate for extreme poverty, defined as income falling below 50 percent of the poverty line, would decrease because of housing and other noncash benefits.
■ Immigrant poverty rates would go up, because of transportation costs and lower participation in government aid.
The changes have been discussed years in academic circles, and both Democrats and Republicans agree that the decades-old White House formula, which is based on a 1955 cost of an emergency food diet, is outdated.
The current calculation sets the poverty level at three times the annual cost of groceries. For a family of four that is $21,203. That calculation does not factor in rising medical, transportation, child care, and housing expenses or geographical variations in living costs. Nor does the current formula consider noncash aid. The result: The poverty rate has varied little from its current 12.5 percent.
Next week, the Census Bureau will publish official poverty figures for 2008 with a cautionary note about the shortcomings.