NYT Reports Dramatic Numbers of “Near Poor” — Access Implications

In response to a request from the Times, the Census Bureau ran the numbers on the “near poor” defined as 150% of the poverty rate, and using its newer more accurate poverty measure.

Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.

It usually hard to surprise the Census, but look at this:

The size of the near-poor population took even the bureau’s number crunchers by surprise.

“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” said Trudi J. Renwick, the bureau’s chief poverty statistician. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”

Some bottom lines with policy implications (noting particularly that this 150% of poverty is closer to, but not fully aligned with traditional legal aid eligibility):

  • Of the 50 million “near poor”, 20%, or 10 million, were lifted from poverty by benefits ignored in the traditional count — think of that as the anti-poverty impact of legal aid the programs it has championed and facilitated over the years.
  • Twenty eight percent work full time — think of the implications of legal aid current caseload priorities — something Alan Houseman has been arguing for decades.
  • Thirty four percent of elderly are poor or near poor (although they may own their homes and have savings) — again so much for the stereotype that poverty is a children’s problem.
  • As  the examples in the article show, these near poor are at constant risk of one crisis — of the kind that the comfortable can easily manage, like one really big bill, pushing them into poverty and a cycle from which it will be hard to recover.

Regardless of what we call this group (the Tines has a Heritage Foundation analyst opining that “I don’t have any objection to this measure if you use the term ‘low-income’.  .  .  .  But the emotionally charged terms ‘poor’ or ‘near poor’ clearly suggest to most people a level of material hardship that doesn’t exist. It is deliberately used to mislead people.”) we obviously need to pay more attention to their needs and characteristics, as well as to the potential impact on the debate about access to justice.

  • Renewed attention to eligibly calculations
  • Renewed attention to priority area decisions
  • Attempts to quantify impact (of courts as well as legal aid) on reducing numbers of those pushed down into poverty
  • Closer focus by commissions on innovative approaches to serving near poor/middle income areas, including by increasing the supply of middle income serving lawyers.
  • Courts thinking about the hugely disruptive impacts on the working poor of the lack of evening court access for this population

I hope that the shock of the LSC funding cut, while obviously needing attention, will not divert from these longer term and broader strategic priorities.  Please share thoughts on other such implications and strategies.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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