The official poverty rate isn’t that great a guide to the state of poverty in the United States. It’s defined as the amount of money a family of three would have to make to spend less than one-third of their income on food in 1963 and 1964. Seriously. The only changes from a half-century ago have been adjustments for inflation. At no point was the measure changed to account for other costs, like health insurance, transportation, or housing, or to factor in income from transfer programs like food stamps or WIC.
The Census released the 2012 numbers for that alternate measure yesterday, which show no change from 2011. But the differences between the alternate measure and the official one allow one to see the influence of various non-wage income sources — including tax credits, transfer programs, government subsidies, child support, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance — on poverty. Far and away the most important of the bunch is Social Security, which keeps millions of seniors and disabled people from falling below the poverty line. Many seniors still fall through the cracks — which might argue for expanding Social Security — but far fewer than if the program didn’t exist.