Officially, the U.S. poverty rate in 2011 was 15 percent exactly, a 0.1 point reduction from 2010. But as I pointed out when that number was released in September, that figure doesn’t mean a whole lot.
The official poverty threshold is the amount of money a family of three would have to make to spend less than one-third of their income on food in 1963 and 1964. Seriously. The only changes from a half-century ago have been adjustments for inflation. At no point was the measure changed to account for other costs, like health insurance, transportation, or housing, or to factor in income from transfer programs like food stamps or WIC.
In recent years the Census Bureau has begun developing a “supplemental poverty measure” that lacks these shortcomings. Today, it released the supplemental figure for 2011. Overall, it’s higher than the official measure, at 16.1 percent, but for some groups, such as children under 18 and blacks, it’s actually lower. By contrast , it’s much higher for the elderly (15.1 percent in the supplemental measure, 8.7 percent in the official one) and Asian-Americans (16.9 percent supplemental, 12.3 percent official), and slightly higher for those 18-64, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites.