New way of measuring poverty finds more seniors, Latinos and people living in the West are poor. The revised total: more than 49 million Americans.

Mostly low-income seniors began lining up along South Inglewood Avenue before six o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning. When the wrought iron gate rolled open at 8:30 a.m., there were well over 100. Most were Latino, almost all the rest African Americans. 

Single file, they entered Catholic Charities’ St. Margaret’s Center in Lennox — a bright yellow two-story stucco oasis with huge migration-theme murals, including the Quetzal bird of Guatemala leading families north — to register for the monthly federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program.   

After being checked off at a counter, they waited outside, where volunteers were unloading plastic crates from a big rental truck onto the ground. When the seniors and others were called, volunteers handed each person two 20-to-30-pounds plastic bags of groceries. Today’s free groceries from the Los Angeles County Regional Food Bank included cereal, orange and apple juice, dry milk, a bag of pinto beans, cans of vegetables, rice and a brick of cheese. 

Elderly couples, like Victor and Maria Morales, received four bags. Before walking home to their nearby apartment, the couple, who have been married 31 years with two grown children and one grandson, stopped to talk to a visitor.

“The free groceries help a lot of people here,” said Victor, 73, retired since 2000 from his warehouse job, where he worked in shipping and receiving for 35 years. “And more people are coming every month. And it helps me and my wife out a lot, because we don’t have much money coming in.”

In fact, he gets no pension, and they survive on their combined Social Security of about $1,800 a month. Because they’ve lived in their two-bedroom apartment for many years, rent is only $700. 

“But it’s too hard to make it every month --- too hard,” Maria, 69, pointed out in broken English. She also comes to St. Margaret’s one other day a month to get more food from the center’s pantry. 

“To live is too expensive today,” Victor agreed. “We only buy at chain stores when there are specials. All of our spare money goes for food. That’s it. No drinking or smoking or anything else. It’s all for food. We’ve just got enough for rent, bills and some food.”

Maria was nodding. 

“This food will last us maybe 20 days,” Victor added, “because it’s only for two people.” 

6.2 million poor seniors

Sadly, Victor and Maria put a human face on what most social scientists say is a much-needed, updated way to measure poverty in the United States. This method takes into account cost-of-living increases, medical care and payroll taxes. It also accounts for any government programs individuals might be receiving, such as housing subsidies, food stamps and free school lunches.  

The new measure, released by the Census Bureau last month, found that 49.1 million Americans — 16 percent of the population — lived in poverty last year. That was an increase from 46.2 million Americans living in poverty by the Bureau’s official measurement for 2010.

And the rise was driven by the big jump in poverty for senior citizens, reported the Supplemental Poverty Measure. For those 65 and older, the number living in poverty soared from 9 percent using the official measure to 15.9 percent (or 1 in 6) using the SPM.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post, “The elderly just overwhelmed it.”

And for the first time, the percentage of poor Hispanics surpassed black Americans. While the poverty rate for Latinos increased from 26.7 to 28.2 percent under the new measure, the poverty rate for African Americans declined from 27.5 percent to 25.4 percent. 

In addition, more than 2.8 million people living in western states were poor under the new measure. This brought the poverty rate in the West up from 15.4 percent to 19.4 percent. For the nation, the poverty rate is 16 percent, according to the new report. 

“The traditional way the U.S. Census Bureau measures poverty is completely out of date,” said Stephanie Lemoncelli, assistant professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University. “The old measure was from the 1960s. The supplemental measure takes into account the kind of expenditures families have to make today, like transportation costs to work and also child care, which is actually a huge cost.

“So it’s really trying to be a more accurate measure and give us a more accurate assessment of poverty. I think there’s general agreement amongst scholars who deal with poverty that the old measure was completely inadequate, and that something did need to change.”

But the social scientist, who deals with global inequality and poverty, stresses that some media accounts played up that poverty in America has somehow changed, which is not true. The only thing that’s changed, of course, is the new way it is being measured. (The old official poverty measurement, at least for the time being, will still be used to allocate government aid and funds for other anti-poverty programs.) 

On the other hand, Lemoncelli readily agrees with the report’s findings that senior Latinos who live in a western state like California face a triple whammy of factors pushing them into poverty.

With the elderly, it makes sense — as the new report points out — that those on fixed incomes have a hard time paying for steadily rising out-of-pocket medical care costs. In addition, she notes that the recession has eaten into a lot of seniors’ savings. So both come into play. 

Concerning Hispanics, Lemoncelli also agrees with the report’s conclusion that one reason for the rise in the group’s high poverty rate is because of the lower participation among immigrants and non-English speakers in government programs like housing supplements and food stamps. 

She adds, however, that another significant reason comes from the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality. Researchers there found that Latinos are likely to be working in so-called “bad jobs,” which pay low wages and probably don’t have health insurance and other benefits.

“We need to be aware of how the economy affects poverty levels,” said Lemoncelli. “It seems simple, but it’s something that people tend to neglect because they are so focused on individual motivation for getting out of poverty or not. It’s just horrible what’s happened with the recession and, basically, the whole economic upheaval. It’s disproportionately affecting many groups who were already at or just above the poverty level and driving them down.”  

‘Bring more awareness’

St. Francis Center, on South Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles, has served both the homeless and struggling inner-city Latino families living in nearby run-down apartments for four decades. Services include a food pantry, sit-down meals for the homeless, and after-school and summer enrichment activities for youth. 

“Hopefully, the Census Bureau’s new report on poverty will bring more awareness that certain groups, like the Hispanic families and seniors we serve, are really in need of help,” said Jill Remelski, the center’s director. “For so long we haven’t really looked at the poverty numbers correctly, which is something that us people working on the ground every day are saying: ‘Those old numbers are not accurate.’

“It’s a busy time for us,” she continued. “We’ve already served more people this year that we did all of last year in all of our programs. And we’re serving more seniors. That’s not necessarily only through our Friday senior program, which now serves a hot meal as well as groceries-to-go and social-interaction-type activities, but also through our regular pantry. The difference with seniors is the fact that many don’t have a support system any longer, so they often have no support to get them through poverty.”

Remelski also agrees with the Census Bureau’s proposed reason for the higher rate of poverty for Latino immigrants under the new measure. 

“There’s a lot of fear that comes along with applying for government programs,” she said. “They’ve heard for decades that if you apply for Medicare or Medi-Cal, and you’re in the process of getting your citizenship, ‘We’ll turn you down because you cost us money.’ They’re so dying to be in the United States that they’re willing to give up the basic necessities out of hope of living here.”

For more than 100 years, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Council of Los Angeles has assisted families, children and the homeless of all faiths in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties by providing shelter, food and clothes through parish-based “conferences.”

Catalina Miller, who directs the conference department, isn’t really surprised by the findings of the new Supplemental Poverty Measure. The 108 conferences with almost 2,000 volunteers have been serving increasing numbers of Hispanics for years as their numbers grow in Southern California. But she and others at the Society were somewhat taken aback by the recent jump in poor seniors, especially in certain locales.

“Probably the jump in Hispanics is because there’s a lot more Hispanics,” Miller pointed out. “And there was a jump in seniors in various geographic areas like the Antelope Valley and South-Central L.A.”

Gloria Jara-Contreras, St. Vincent de Paul’s Spanish conference coordinator who also heads the conference at Mother of Sorrows Church in South Los Angeles, concurred. 

“We’re noticed that overall we have more people coming for assistance,” she reported. “But something that really shocked us was that we got more seniors than we did last year at our conference, probably 50 percent more. So this really raised a flag.”

Jara-Contreras believes the increase was due mainly to recent changes in Medicare coverage for medications — causing larger co-pays for older people on fixed incomes — and income from Social Security.  

“Medications come first before food for seniors because they have to have their medicines,” Miller noted. “So they use their money on medications and, therefore, they really can’t afford to buy the food that they used to buy. And that’s why more are coming to food pantries.”

‘Trying to hold on’

Cleveland Bolton has been coming to St. Margaret’s Center’s monthly senior food program for about four years. A chef for 39 years before retiring because of a bad knee, he and his wife Wanda get by on both their disability checks, which total a little over $1,700. After paying the rent, the couple has barely $700 to live on.

“Our income is so damn low it scares me,” he told The Tidings with a quick chuckle. “We’re looking for a cheaper place, but we can’t find one. We’re still trying to hold on. But when we get through paying the bills and everything, we’ve got nothing left. 

“So getting free groceries helps,” he went on. “Yeah, it helps, ’cause I mix it up with vegetables and make it good. But a lot of people in line here don’t have my cooking skills. But it’s hard for all of us to make it. And it would be really difficult without this food.”   

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/1202/olapoverty/{/gallery}