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Tough Loving the New York Times -- Who's Poorer, Elders or Youth?

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Okay, I admit it: I do tend to pick on the Gray Lady of New York. Such an easy target. But that's because I love her -- and pay lots for her to grace my doorstep every morning in California.

Well, call it tough love.

Last Saturday the usually astute columnist Charles M. Blow showed even humane writers can experience statistical snow blindness at times.

In his column, "Hard-Knock (Hardly Acknowledged) Life," Blow cites federal statistics for 2009 showing that while only 8.9 percent of Americans 65-plus fell below the federal poverty line, a whopping 20.7 percent of youth under age 18 are impoverished. Meanwhile, the rest of the population, ages 18-64, struggle at 12.9 percent, the highest level since 1959.

Blow states, "The data show that seniors are not the ones feeling the majority of pain these days." The majority of pain -- what a phrase! Are liberal columnists now going to start comparing populations groups according to which ones are more aching than thou?

The problem is that Blow unquestioningly seeks to place blame in terms narrowly defined and based on dubious demographic analysis of gross averages. I mean, on average, Bill Gates and you are billionaires, right.

To be sure, young people are being pounded by the Great Recession. But had Blow looked a bit farther, he might have seen the actual poverty evidence more clearly. For instance, at the start of the year, the U.S. Census Bureau released a research paper titled "Who is Poor? A New Look with the Supplemental Poverty Measure," which reevaluates U.S. poverty based on a new alternative calculation.

"Who Is Poor?" is not light bedside reading. What's important to know, however, is that
policy experts have complained for years that the federal poverty measure, formulated 50 years ago, fails to include critical daily costs of living, such as out-of-pocket medical costs and taxes that squeeze seniors on fixed incomes.

The Census Bureau's analysis shows that one in six older Americans --16 percent, not 8.9 percent -- live in poverty, almost double the number of impoverished elders shown by the official federal poverty line.

No group emerges any richer through the new measure's lens filter. The ranks of poorer whites of all ages jumped by 13 percent, while blacks and Latino of all ages saw smaller increases of from one-to-three percentage points (presumably because they can't get that much poorer).

The Los Angeles Times quoted the "Who Is Poor?" report's author, Kathleen S. Short, as describing the new picture of poverty drawn by the alternative measure. The poorest Americans, she said, "would consist of a larger population of elderly people, working families and married-couple families than are identified in the official poverty measure."

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) delved more deeply into the new poverty measure and found that life is even tougher for ethnic widows and other older women living alone. The alternative poverty measure shows that 43 percent of Latino women and 34 percent of African American females living solo are in poverty.

"Too often, the struggles of elder poverty are invisible to policymakers and the public, yet millions are suffering and millions more are living on the edge of a financial crisis," said Sandra Nathan, NCOA's senior vice president of economic security.

None of this is new to those who have watched the debate over poverty statistics for years.

THE ELDER INDEX

A similar alternative poverty measure, the Elder Economic Security Index, developed by the University of Massachusetts Boston and Wider Opportunities for Women, is being used to measure real poverty or near poverty among seniors in several states.

In their 2008 analysis, gerontologist Steven A. Wallace of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues demonstrated that nearly half -- 47 percent -- of seniors in the Golden State are impoverished or struggling to make ends meet.

The realistic amount needed to live is about double the individual federal poverty line, which was $10,830 in 2010. In many cases, the official amount won't even cover annual housing costs for rent or property taxes plus home repairs for owners, much less food, clothing, medicine and so on. Just to get through the year, people need about $20,000 today.

To his credit, at least Blow added, "I, for one, refuse to believe that this is an either -- or proposition. We can make smart choices about protecting seniors and supporting younger America."

Sure. And how about trying that without superficial reporting that feeds into public biases against a particular demographic group?