WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies are exploring new ways to measure poverty, a politically delicate endeavor that could boost the number of Americans considered to be among the poorest of the poor.
Part of the problem, critics say, is that the decades-old method of determining how many people are in poverty is outdated, and does not take enough account of factors such as skyrocketing child care and housing costs. Nor does it consider non-cash aid such as food stamps that some poor families get.
A recent Census Bureau report found that millions more Americans would be considered impoverished if test measurements that include some of the disputed elements were used.
Federal agencies have studied the topic for years. Officials with the Office of Management and Budget, the department spearheading the study, said it could take years more to make any change official.
Beyond record-keeping purposes, revisions could affect the amount of money poured into funding for federal programs that aid the poor, such as Medicaid. It could also change the way such funding is distributed.
Wary politicians and policy-makers were proceeding cautiously even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rose to the top of the agenda.
"Making a change just raises a host of political issues that we cannot get past," said University of Wisconsin professor Thomas Corbett, one of 40 advocacy group members who last year urged the government to make changes.
The Census Bureau keeps the government's official poverty statistics. In September, it announced the poverty rate dropped from 11.8 percent in 1999 to 11.3 percent in 2000, its lowest level in over a quarter century.
A person is considered living in poverty if his household income before taxes falls below varying income thresholds. In 2000, for instance, a family of four was impoverished if their household made $17,603 or less.