Counting the Poorest Among Us

Jordan Weissmann highlights some recent attempts to ascertain how many Americans live in extreme poverty—under $2 a day—that came up with very different numbers:

According to H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins, the number of families living under that low, low line has grown 159 percent since 1996. … Part of the reason Shaefer and Edin’s headline number was so startlingly high—they calculated that the extreme poverty rate among households with children was a chilling 4.3 percent—could be attributed to a very narrow definition of income that ignored all noncash safety net benefits. Today, most of the government’s poverty-fighting efforts don’t involve straightforward cash. Food stamps? Housing vouchers? Tax credits? None were included. Once they accounted for those programs, only 613,000 families were living below the $2-a-day mark in 2011—still up by about half since the Clinton years.