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The poor are with us, however you count them

Updated: December 15, 2011 9:50AM

If you’re confused about poverty rates, no one can blame you.

It seems like for the last year, there have been constant updates on just how badly Americans are doing in the shadow of The Great Recession That Never Ends, followed by reports suggesting that so-called impoverished people are actually doing all right and now revised Census data that say, no, poverty is pretty much higher than it’s ever been.

The “old” way of calculating poverty was flawed, experts say, because it failed to account for benefits such as public assistance and food stamps on the one hand, and high medical costs and regional differences in the cost of living on the other.

“The official measure no longer corresponds to reality,” Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia University, told the New York Times. “It doesn’t get either side of the equation right — how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data.”

Flawed data was exactly what the right-leaning Heritage Foundation was trying to illuminate in its late-summer report “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” In the report, researchers blamed the same poor accounting to make the point that the problem of poverty is not really as bad as the media’s misplaced attention to worst-case scenarios would have you believe.

But don’t be taken in. Newly revised numbers reported last week — whatever the politically motivated spin — pretty much speak for themselves: 49.1 million people across the country — a new all-time high of 16 percent — are poor.

“When people walk into a food pantry, they don’t tell us — nor do we ask — whether they have Xboxes in their homes,” said Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “From our perspective, we are seeing so many more people who genuinely need us showing up to food pantries — people who are there for the first time as well as people who years ago needed us but had since found jobs and now find themselves in the situation of having lost their job or had their hours cut back.

“I have to challenge the assertion that these are folks who are gaming the system,” Maehr told me last Thursday, as the first snowflakes of the season fell. “During our last fiscal year, there were 5.1 million visits to food pantries just in Cook County, a 58 percent increase over the last 3 years. And it is a humbling thing — no one wants to stand in that line. We have high quality food and volunteers who treat people with dignity and respect, but when you have to stand in line on a cold day like today and wait to be handed a bag of food, there is nothing fun about it.”

Making the food available is no walk in the park, either. Donors of cash and food are under the same constraints as everyone else during this bleak economic time and, worse, the cost of food is going up so much that the food dollars on hand are not going as far and they once did.

This is not cheery news as we’re supposed to be gearing up for happy holidays. But even if poverty statistics are confusing, it is crucial to understand that the needy are all around us and making a difference for them is well within reach.

“One of the things we know about hunger is that we have enough food in our country and in our communities to feed everyone that needs to be fed,” Maehr said. “It just takes thinking about what each of us can do.”

Visit to learn about the many ways — big and small — you can help feed Chicago.

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