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Census Data Show More Mainers Living in Poverty
09/19/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

As the GOP pushes for cuts in SNAP benefits, the latest census data indicate that not only are more people living on food stamps now than before the recession, but that the overall number of people living in poverty is on the rise. That's according to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau for its latest American Community Survey. In Maine, the data indicate that more families and children are slipping below the federally-established poverty line. But as Jennifer Mitchell reports, some economists say those poverty figures don't really tell the whole story.

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If you were a family of four in 2012, getting by on less than $23,492 a year, the federal government offically classified you as impoverished. But, as some economists argue, there are figures - and then there's reality.

"The poverty data is certainly something we need to pay attention to, but it tends to underestimate the degree of economic hardship people are having," says Ann Acheson, a researcher at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

Acheson says the latest American Community Survey data indicating that Mainers are worse off now than before the recession probably comes as no surprise. But what might surprise some, she says, is how so many more people are struggling and slipping through the cracks - more than a simple poverty line on a survey can indicate.

"It often means working at jobs that don't provide adequate benefits," Acheson says. "They don't provide, say, healthcare, they don't provide time off if you're sick, or if somebody in your family is sick. So people living at that level are just really on the edge."

The methodology used to determine the federal poverty level is based on family buying trends and data collected in the 1950's and 60's, which were largely focused on necessities like food. Today, people spend less of their incomes on food and more on things like out-of-pocket healthcare, energy for heat, and transportation to work.

If today's real-world survival needs were adequately factored into a poverty equation, far more people would have found themselves at the bottom on this latest Census survey, says Charlie Colgan from the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

"So a lot of social and economic changes have increased the number nearer poverty, without necessarily changing the number greatly below the poverty level," Colgan says, "because the poverty level measure itself is such a kind of articifial number."

But even so, the number of Mainers actually falling below that poverty line has gone up. In 2008, just over 12 percent were living below the poverty line. In 2012, the number rose to almost 15 percent. Fewer than 14 percent of families were on food stamp benefits in 2008; in 2012 the number grew to almost 18 percent, according to the survey.

Additionally, other categories on the survey support a general slide toward the bottom: Home ownership was down, and more people were renting. Expensive oil-based home heating was down, while cheaper wood burning was up.

What the trends mean for Maine has economists looking into the hole left by the recession with caution. Charlie Colgan at USM says getting wage numbers up will take more than two or three - or even five - years, and much will depend on the job economy - the quality of jobs, he says, not just the quantity.

UMaine's Ann Acheson says for Maine, with its burgeoning elder population and fewer young wage earners, the climb out of the recession may be steeper than anticipated.


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