How many poor people are there in Illinois?
It depends on how you count.
Illinois is one of 14 states where a new way of measuring poverty reveals that more of our residents are poor. The Census Bureau recently put out a report (pdf) on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, a new way of calculating the poverty line that was released in 2010. By that measure, Illinois' poverty rate is 15 percent, more than one point higher than the standard poverty measure, which says 13.9 percent of our citizens are poor.
The new measure is called supplemental because it supplements what we already know. The old-school poverty measure is the one used to calculate who gets government benefits like food stamps.
If you go by the current measure, the poverty line for 2011 for a family of four is $22,350. Under the new measure, the national poverty line for a family with a mortgage is $25,703 and $25,222 for a renter. For the Chicago metro region, those numbers get pushed even higher -- $27,130 for owners and $26,595 for renters.
Why the difference? Because the new poverty measure takes into account a lot more variables than the old one.
The standard poverty measure was developed in the early ‘60s .It assumes food costs to be about a third of a family's budget, so it takes what it costs to feed a family the bare necessities and multiplies it by three.
That made sense when food was the greatest expense a family faced. But that's just not the case anymore. The current measure doesn't factor in costs like transportation or child care, or take into account geographic differences in the cost of living.
Enter the supplemental measure. It figures in additional costs families today are dealing with, and it counts programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance toward a family's income.
In a report released this month, the Census Bureau examined each state and compared the poverty rate calculated by the current measure to the new one. Ten states saw no significant difference between the measures. Another 26 states had lower rates of poverty under the new measure. And 14, including Illinois, had more poor folks.
So why is our poverty rate higher?
One probable factor is housing costs, says Dan Lesser, director of economic security at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Cities such as Chicago have higher housing costs which likely pushes our poverty line number up a bit.
Another might be our large Hispanic population, Lesser says, many of whom are immigrants. Immigrants have a poverty rate about seven percent higher under the new measure.
The new measure also doesn't count one of Illinois' biggest programs to help the poor: child care subsidies. Our rate might go down if it factored in the money we pay to help low-income families with child care.
Lesser says the supplemental measure isn't necessarily better, but it is more complete.
“It gives us a little more information, which is always good, but it doesn't do anything radical,” said Lesser. “The most important thing is that it does reward states that are taking measure to alleviate hardship.”
But despite the fact that it gives us a clearer picture of poverty, the supplemental measure won't become the official measure any time soon. Doing so, says Lesser, would really shake things up when it comes to federal funding.
“It would be a huge political issue. You'd be taking huge amounts of funding away from some places and allocating it to others,” said Lesser.
So until it becomes politically palatable, the supplemental poverty measure will remain just supplemental, quietly lurking in census reports and my wonky blog posts from The Chicago Reporter.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Medicaid was figured into the supplemental poverty measure. The supplemental poverty measure only counts assistance that has a clear dollar value, like food stamps. We regret this error.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Down to the Last Dollar