The United States Census Bureau is a wonderful organization that takes our national pulse, checks our height and weight and makes inferences from that, as smoothly as any family doctor. Our body-politic is as complicated as our various couch-potato incarnations, the diagnosis as varied, the prescriptions as vulnerable to individual identity. What I’m driving at is we’re not as poor in Caledonia, Mississippi as we are in Highland Park, Illinois.
It’s not a small matter. According to today’s statistical release, one in every eight Americans lives in poverty.
Definition. We require that everything be defined in America. No different for poverty. You want to know what poor is, we can tell you. For a family of four, it’s $19,307 and a couple is poor at $12,334. The interesting thing is (if it’s not too grotesque to talk about poverty as interesting) that you can be every bit as poor earning $19,500 and yet lose various and sundry gift packages worth a whole lot of money. Such as housing assistance, food stamps, school lunch programs and the like. $193 bumps you out of that even though you won’t feel one bit richer.
Getting back to Caledonia and Highland Park, the same nineteen grand will buy you quite decent housing in Caledonia, a two bedroom house can be had there for about $7,000 per year. A two bedroom apartment in Highland Park will set you back $10,500 and don’t even ask about a house. Thus housing varies by from 36% to 55% of available income, depending upon where you’re poor.
Apropos to just these differentiations within the fixed-numbers of the poverty legislation currently applicable, a bright young newly-elected congressman has proposals. Rahm Emanuel, Congressman from Chicago says “We’re getting at best an impressionistic sense of what’s going on in the economy.” Poverty levels, personal savings, inflation, health insurance and all kinds of similar data that drives policy-making is increasingly based on census figures that are too broad. Thus we overstate some problems and understate others. “Major policy decisions are being made based on data that is inadequate to the task,” says Emanuel.
It’s not that the Census Bureau isn’t up to the task of making numbers fit circumstances. But it’s up to the White House budget office to actually change the official measurement and, thus far, both Democrat and Republican administrations have failed to do so. There are a lot of geese out there to be cooked, so cooking the numbers has been an easier solution. Rahm has recently introduced legislation to establish an independent commission aimed at overhauling government statistics.
Yeah, I know . . . another independent commission. But let’s hope we get this one and begin to straighten out the numbers we live and legislate by.