Some critics of the government’s poverty figures argue that the impression they give is too gloomy. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think-tank, points out that official poverty calculations exclude taxes paid and government benefits received as well as non-cash income such as fringe benefits or the rent saved through homeownership. This leads to a growing mismatch between the official poverty rate and spending by those at the bottom, which has risen though the poverty rate has held steady.
Mr Eberstadt points out that while nutrition, adequate shelter and health care were big problems for the poor when America’s poverty measure was devised, the picture is different today. Obesity is now the chief nutritional woe facing America’s poor. And those under the poverty line now have nearly as much house space and amenities as the average family in 1980. This does not mean that the poor are leading lives of plenty but it does indicate that their lot is getting steadily better, an improvement not reflected in official figures.