Anyone who follows the messages from the USCCB or Catholics in politics will likely be aware that a number of statements have come out recently regarding unemployment, justice for immigrants, the budget, and the deliberations regarding the “super committee.” These statements all remain on the level of making a moral argument concerning the Christian commitment to stand with the poor and the equal dignity of all human persons.  However, these statements are also fulfilling an important call of Vatican 2 – to read the signs of the times and respond to the concrete reality in which we live (to listen, observe, judge then act).

Reiterating the need to read the signs of the times, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World) observed:

Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. True, there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems. (no4)

For better or worse, these words ring as true today (if not more) than they did almost fifty years ago. The Bishops of the Second Vatican Council recognized that the effectively ministering and witnessing to the Gospel required engaging the concrete reality of contemporary society. Living the Gospel, faithful discipleship demands reading the signs of the times, or as the Jesuit Martyr Ignacio Ellacuria frequently reminded – confronting reality. In particular, discipleship challenges us to face reality with regards to poverty. If we do not tell the truth, if we do not learn and engage the reality on the ground, we cannot faithfully or effectively accompany the poor and fight injustice. So if we want to fight povert -we must face the reality of poverty.

In order to do this – we must first get a handle on how we measure poverty. Measuring poverty has been a contested and complicated political hot-potato for quite some time. The inadequacies of the Official Measure (which is based upon a 1963 calculation of 3x the minimum food requirements) are well known; however, there had been lacking a political will to create a new measure. (although individual cities like NY City have developed their own measure, to account for increased housing costs; and individual states, like New York, have adjusted their state qualifications – some capping at 400% of the poverty line for eligibility  for programs like Child Health Plus). One reason that many feared developing a new measure is that it was generally assumed that a supplemental measure would reveal far more people living “in poverty.” However, in 2009, President Obama instructed the US Census bureau to develop a supplemental measure – and last month the results and analysis were released.

While I highly recommend taking a look at the Analysis report from the US Census, the Journalists Resource summarizes key findings:

  • Overall, this means 49 million Americans live in poverty, an increase from the figure of 46.2 million reflected in the earlier 2011 Census numbers (calculated according to the older official formula.) This new measure puts the percentage of those in poverty at 16%, as opposed to the official number of 15.1%. The SPM guidelines put the poverty level at $24,343 for a family of four, compared with $22,113 under the older model.
  • Of all those in poverty, the numbers expanded for those of working age — those between the ages of 18 and 65 — made up 59.5% of people in poverty (in contrast to 56.3% under official measures). Moreover, the percentage of residents 65 and older in poverty also rose using this new method of calculation, from 7.6% to 12.7%.
  • “For most groups, SPM rates are higher than official poverty rates. Comparing the SPM to the official measure shows lover poverty rates for … the poverty rates for children under 18, African-Americans, renters, those living outside major metropolitan areas, residents of the Midwest and South, and those covered by public health insurance.”
  • Poverty levels increased for residents of the U.S. Northeast (+1%) and West (+4.6%), and declined for those in the South (-2.2%) and Midwest (-3.5%) when SPM rates were compared to the older official poverty rates.
  • Under SPM, government household resources such as the Earned income Tax Credit and SNAP lifted nearly 2% of recipients out of poverty; programs such as the Medical Out of Pocket (MOOP) expenditures, however, resulted in a 3.3% increase in the poverty rate due to the inclusion of MOOP-related expenses.

So what does all this mean? While many people expect ed the supplemental numbers to be higher than the official measure (which remains the measure for national eligibility standards and will continue to do so ) – the difference was far less than some of us expected. 3 million was not statistically as big a gap as many feared a change would illustrate (remember, no politician wants to announce there are 5% more in poverty….) it is a change of a percentage point. from 15% to 16% poverty rate (so we can estimate a % point is about 3 million people).

However, the important data learned from the Supplemental Measure is not that there are 3 million more in poverty, but that this research gives us a clearer picture about what works in  alleviating poverty and what contributes to it.

  1. from this data – we know that all things being equal the Earned Income Tax Credit reduced poverty by2%. All else equal, the poverty rate would’ve been 18% not 16% without the EITC
  2. Similarly, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) reduces those “in poverty” by 2%. And, SNAP combined with WIC, School Lunch Program explain why under the supplemental measure we see a REDUCTION in child poverty, while we also see an increase in all other demographics. This provides important research data demonstrating the effectiveness of SNAP (On the topic of SNAP, I had the honor of being present for a presentation by the Secretary of Agricultur – and he provided the following data – 92% of families receiving SNAP benefits DO NOT receive any form of cash welfare (those are seniors and working families) And, SNAP instead of negatively impacting our economic situation – it helps it. For every $1 spent,SNAP generates $1.82 in economic activity). This information because it gives us concrete data – that SNAP is an effective way to fight hunger in this country.)
  3. The one group that had the greatest JUMP under the supplemental measure was among Seniors – Accounting for Medical Out of Pocket Expenses increases the number in poverty – examining the bigger picture (Medicare Part B, Prescription Drugs, etc) we get a much fuller picture of senior poverty which asks us some hard questions concerning healthcare costs (not medicare, but out of pocket expenses for those on fixed income).

As Christians, discipleship demands that I stand with the poor and that I put the “least among us” first.  That means listening to the poor, the jobless and looking at the “signs of the times” for how to effectively promote the well being of all. Hard choices are going to be made – but the new supplemental measure gives us concrete info showing we have some effective programs particularly to combat child poverty – and that’s crucial to know if we have any hope of making a moral judgment and deciding the right action.