The Census changes are the first revisions to how the poverty rate is calculated since 1963. Since then, it has been gauged solely by cash income per household. But the new figures give a larger sense of what impact government spending has on poverty, says Timothy Smeeding, an economist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"An awful lot of this is where you set the levels and calculate the level of the poverty line," he says. "But it also reflects the programs that you really care about, that we've been using to fight poverty, including public housing, tax credits," and food stamps.
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.