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New poverty calculus: Cause for alarm or political deception?

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This plays to attempts by Democrats and the Obama White House to bolster public support for government aid for poorer Americans, critics say, which is why Republicans, if they gain control of Congress next year, would likely work to dismantle the new poverty rate measurement by defunding it.

Critics add that that the new measures make it impossible to shrink poverty rates without ensuring that poor people's wages rise faster than middle-class wages. 

"This [new count] is a deliberate deception, a Trojan horse to smuggle the goal of income leveling in under the slogan of poverty," says Robert Rector, a poverty expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The reason they call it poverty instead of income inequality is that there's not a lot of political demand for income equalization in the United States."

A large part of the increase in poverty comes from rising medical costs, the Census Bureau says, which affected the poverty rate jump among older Americans – from 9 percent under the old formula to nearly 16 percent under the new one.

The new figures, tied now more directly to cost of living, also gave insights into the geographical configuration of poverty, showing that the suburbs, the Northeast, and the West are more likely include poor people than under the old system.

But the overall rise in poverty under the new calculations clashes with other analyses of government figures. In fact, 39 states report no changes in the poverty rate even through the depths of the recent recession. An alternate set of data quoted by The New York Times last week showed that the number of poor people didn't grow by 9.7 million people since 2006, as the Census Bureau pointed out in September, but by 4.6 million people.

Moreover, critics say, the US definition of poverty – even before the change – incorporated many people who might not fit the typical image of living in poverty. 

Government data not highlighted in the new study show that 60 percent of poor Americans have cable TV, 30 percent have wide screen or plasma TVs, and a majority live in a well-kept house with more square footage than the dwelling space for a middle-class English family.

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