Occupy Chicago is right about one thing, but....

Occupy Chicago and other practitioners of those new and spreading protests want us to better understand and empathize with the poor.

So let's work on that.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides evidence that America is in the grip of a poverty pandemic, as the occupiers would have it: Last year, more than 15 percent of our country's population — or about 46.2 million — lived in poverty. By anyone's measure, occupiers or die-hard capitalists, that's unacceptable.

But is it really that bad? Do the numbers accurately reflect the perception most Americans have of an impoverished family living, if not on the streets, like starving squatters in rat-infested hovels?

Obviously, the bureau can't count the impoverished by eyeballing everyone living miserably. Instead, the bureau relies on a complicated and controversial statistical analysis of survey data, not on an actual head count of the indigent. The bureau's formula is designed to reveal how many people live below the "threshold" of poverty, generally acknowledged to be the income level at which an individual or family doesn't have enough money to buy the basic needs for healthy living — food, shelter and clothing.

But some critics argue that how the bureau calculates the number of impoverished Americans overstates the problem. When figuring out an individual's or family's income, it only counts actual "money income," while ignoring such things as welfare payments.

Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation, counted more than 70 means-tested government programs that the census excludes from family income when defining it as poor. Among them are cash, food, housing, medical care and social services available to the poor. They include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Supplemental Security Income; the earned income tax credit; food stamps; the Women, Infants and Children food program; public housing and Medicaid.

They add: "In 2008, federal and state governments spent $714 billion on means-tested welfare programs, but the Census Bureau counted only about 4 percent of this as money income in determining whether a household was poor. The bottom line is that the economic resources available to poor people are vastly greater than the report claims.

"In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor finds that the one-fifth of households with the lowest incomes appear to spend $1.87 for every $1 of income that the Census Bureau says they receive. If the free medical care and public housing subsidies given to these households were counted, the gap between expenditure and income would be even greater."

To suggest that government isn't doing anything to help the poor is a calumny against the American body politic. Perhaps Americans aren't as bad off as America's toughest critics would have it. Government surveys, for example, find that 96 percent of poor parents said their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food and that only 4 percent of the poor become temporarily homeless over the year.

Yet, 4 percent of 46.2 million amounts to nearly 2 million homeless families or hungry households, hardly an insignificant number. To them, destitution is real, not a statistic to be batted around or used for political purposes.

The Census Bureau has no measure to accurately gauge misery and despair. No one does.

We can disagree over how best to help the truly poor — by extending further the helping hand of government or by freeing the hands of American creativity from government overreach. Or, more generally and importantly, renewing the American ideal of community by strengthening our commitment to one another. Each approach has it merits and shortcomings. Somewhere, there's a balance. It's so obvious that just pointing it out is vapid.

But the occupiers are right; let's better empathize with the poor and better understand poverty. Give the occupiers credit for that much. But ill-informed rhetoric and unbridled finger-pointing won't get us there.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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