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If a single mother of two earning roughly $9,400 annually holds her rent, food and child care expenses to the minimum established under federal standards, she would have about $30 left at the end of each month for health care and other household items and clothing.

Federal policy indicates that salary is enough for a family of three to live on without being classified as poor.But a study released Wednesday challenged conventional poverty standards, saying the criteria met by 32 million Americans is deceptive and arbitrary and skimps at the expense of people in need.

The survey of 3,511 Americans, conducted by the Gallup Poll for the Families For United Senior Action Foundation, found that most believe the guidelines understate the number of people living in poverty because the income levels used to decide who is poor is too low.

The study, conducted between July and October 1989, also found that the poor are more likely to be white, older and better educated than "would appear" under federal poverty guidelines.

"The government poverty line is based on an arbitrary, arcane and outdated formula intended to serve the needs of bureaucrats and politicians," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the non-profit Families USA Foundation.

"The real-life poverty line is rooted in the experience of America's consumers who know the real costs they have to pay to purchase the essential necessities of life," said Pollack.

The "real life" poverty level established by respondents to the survey averaged $15,017 for a family of four, while the federal government poverty line for the same family is $12,092.

The survey showed that if "real life" figures were applied there would be 44 million Americans living in poverty.

Comparing "real life" figures to government statistics, there would be 2.4 million more poor blacks, 8.1 million more poor whites, 5.4 million more poor males and 7.5 million more poor females.

There are more than 6.5 million people over 65 who fall below the "real life" poverty standard, which is 23 percent of all Americans in that age group. That compares with the government's elderly poverty calculation of 12 percent.

The method for determining the federal poverty line was set in 1963 and was based on family needs and used consumption data from a 1955 survey showing that the average American family spent about one-third of its budget on food.