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Census numbers: More poor in NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 20. 2011 10:01PM
Charlie Sherman, executive director of New Horizons for New Hampshire, said he doesn't need statistics to tell him people are struggling. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)

New U.S. Census numbers suggest more people are struggling to make ends meet in New Hampshire than the official poverty rate would lead one to believe.

New Hampshire has long had one of the lowest poverty rates in the country - in 2009, it was the lowest at 7.9 percent. However, an alternative poverty assessment released by the Census this month, the Supplemental Poverty Measure, indicates that New Hampshire's poverty rate in 2009 was 10.4 percent, higher than seven other states, including Maine and Vermont.

This information did not come as a surprise to some of the dozens of people who lined up on a recent evening at the food pantry at New Horizons for New Hampshire in Manchester, where the number of people seeking shelter and food has been steadily climbing this year.

'I think people just aren't aware what's really happening out there,' said Melissa, who came to the shelter with her daughter, a student at Memorial High School. She did not want to give her full name.

Even though her husband is working, Melissa said the family is struggling. 'We still need a little extra help. I think everyone is close to the edge. All of my friends are struggling to make it week to week,' she said.

Still most livable?

The higher poverty estimate could take the sheen off one of the state's more widely touted statistics. Low poverty, coupled with the state's high median income, were key factors cited by the CQ Press when the publishing company again ranked New Hampshire the country's 'Most Livable State' this year, a designation that has also been trumpeted by Gov. John Lynch.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure is meant to offer a more thorough picture of poverty in the United States, which has been measured by a set of criteria dating back more than four decades, before the implementation of many programs aimed at reducing the rate.

The SPM takes into account the value of government assistance, such as food stamps and housing subsidies, on one side of the ledger, while factoring in expenses, such as housing and out-of-pocket medical costs, on the other.

'The current measure does not take into account variation in expenses that are necessary to hold a job and to earn income - expenses that reduce disposable income,' the report notes.

The report also raises the threshold for poverty, from $22,113 a year for a two-adult, two-child family in 2010 by the official measure, to $24,343 by the SPM.

The report revealed that groups that have been the greatest beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs, notably children and African-Americans, had lower poverty rates than the official Census estimate. Poverty was higher, however, for a broad swaths of the population, in particular the elderly, married couples and those living in the West and Northeast.

Housing costs, and more

The state level data, showing a difference of 2.5 percent between the official and supplemental poverty rate in New Hampshire, came in a separate analysis.

Trudi Renwick, who heads the Census' Poverty Statistics Branch, cautioned that the state-level analysis was based on only one year's worth of data, and that poverty estimates typically rely on two to three years of data. She did note, however, that the difference in New Hampshire between the official and supplemental rate was 'statistically significant.'

Housing costs

Public policy experts said it wasn't surprising that New Hampshire would fare worse in a measure of poverty that included the value of public assistance and local costs of living.

'When you include the cost of living in New Hampshire, for housing and utilities, you dramatically increase the number of people having difficulty making ends meet, which is really what we're talking about when we measure poverty,' said Steve Norton, the executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. 'I think New Hampshire has always fared well in measures like poverty and median income, but that can hide variations that exist with respect to both the age of populations and geography.'

Jobs, not public aid

As for the prospect of the Granite State losing its distinctive status, Charles Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center For Public Policy, a free-market think tank, said any statistic that says one state is the best is 'dangerous.'

'Saying we have the lowest poverty in America, there's a temptation to say everything is fine,' Arlinghaus said. 'Well no, if you're a public official, you should still look at that.'

But Arlinghaus said the answer was not to provide a greater share of public assistance, but to redouble efforts to grow the economy. 'Even if we were 50th in poverty, we can still do better. We still want more jobs, good jobs,' he said.

For now the Supplemental Poverty Measure is only for research purposes; only the official poverty rate will be used to designate federal aid and for other policy decisions.

In the meantime, service providers are reporting that demand is rising. At New Horizons for New Hampshire, nights spent in the shelter have been up 12 percent this year and food pantry use is up 14 percent, according to Charlie Sherman, the center's executive director.

Sherman said he doesn't need new statistics to tell him people are struggling. 'What we see now on a daily basis are people who have jobs - but they may be new jobs, with significantly less pay and benefits,' he said. 'The first thing I tell them is don't apologize. You're a victim of the economy.'

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