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Poverty trends across the nation are staying put

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 12:25 a.m. MST

In this Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013 photo, David, 6, Donald the son of Jennifer Donald whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps, eats dinner in Philadelphia. Families already buffeted by difficult economic times will see their food stamps benefits drop Nov. 1 as money allocated by the 2009 federal stimulus plan runs out. The average family of four will see benefits drop by $36 a month, a tough hit at a time when child poverty is climbing and Congress is debating a major cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

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If you were to ask Beth Mattingly to describe national safety net programs like food stamps she would give two words: necessary but insufficient .

That's because the nation's poverty rate hasn't budged.

Data from the Supplemental Poverty Measure, released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed the nation's poverty rate at 16 percent, unchanged from the 2011 report. This rate is slightly higher than the 2012 official poverty measure of 15 percent.

So where does this leave government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps) and other programs offering relief to impoverished Americans?

According to Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families for the Carsey Institute, it's still being gobbled up by needy families.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure, the third published since it was first released in 2011, suggests that even years after the recession has officially ended, many are still in an economic rut, she said.

"We have these high numbers in the wake of the recession, so in terms of the Americans who are struggling the most, we are not seeing a reduction in their ranks," said Mattingly.

Safety nets still effective

While the number of people living in poverty isn't changing, Mattingly said the report is still telling.

"The report shows how many people are being listed above poverty because of (safety net) programs, but additionally there are many people who are still in poverty," she said. "They are not in as deep of poverty as they would be absent these programs."

But an overhaul of safety net policies looks uncertain, Mattingly said.

Earlier this month the food stamps program saw cuts to totaling $5 billion.

Nearly 48 million Americans were affected by these cuts, equivalent to eliminating 21 meals a month for a family of four, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Mattingly said both the House and Senate have passed bills to cut food stamps further. Regardless of what happens though, the future for programs like food stamps remain undetermined, she said.

"We are in an economic climate of cutting programs and not expanding them," Mattingly said. "It will depend ultimately on how they are cut. It could mean fewer benefits or fewer eligible. People who get benefits may see fewer dollars. It can mean a harder road for some Americans."

Progress in measurements

Measuring poverty for this study is a new approach to identifying America's poor.

For most of the nation's history, the government had no threshold to measure poverty, but beginning in 1963, census workers started tabulating how much the average family spent on food.

Results showed that the average family spent a third of their income on meals. The results were used each year as a marker to determine the number of people living in poverty, and were adjusted annually to meet inflation.

Because of concern about the accuracy of this measure, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics developed a new way to calculate poverty that would include the use of safety net programs like food stamps, tax credits and subsidized housing, as well as necessary expenses the average American has. This is the third year the U.S. Census has released the Supplemental Poverty Measure.

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