Voters Have Little Knowledge of What Government Poverty Statistics Mean

Only 13% of voters are aware that, according to the federal government, the average person living in poverty gets out of poverty in less than six months. A national survey found that 87% mistakenly believe that most people remain in poverty for a longer period of time.

A big reason for that misunderstanding is that what voters think of as poverty is not what the federal government measures. The disconnect between public understanding and the official statistics make it very difficult to help those most in need.

To understand the disconnect, consider a person is laid off from a good job and expects to find another job within 3 months. The federal government would say that person is living in poverty during the three months without income. Only 14% of voters think the federal government counts that person as living in poverty.

It is because the government includes people like this in its definition that the average person “in poverty” is able to escape within a few months.

Several other examples of this disconnect were found in the survey:

  • The official statistics say that a college student with no income who is supported by her parents and living in an off-campus apartment is living in poverty. Only 14% of voters recognize that the federal government considers such college students to be living in poverty.
  • Just 19% recognize that  a person who has earned a good middle-class income for many years, loses their job, and takes six months to find a new job is counted as living in poverty.
  • Only 7% believe that someone who takes six months off from work to travel is considered by the government to be living in poverty.

On the other hand, consider a low-income worker who, over a period of several years, barely made more money than the amount officially defined as the poverty line. According to the government statistics, that person is not living in poverty. But, 57% of voters believe this person would be counted.

In other words, the government counts a large number of fairly affluent people as living in poverty when they experience a temporary cash flow crunch. At the same time, the official statistics do not count many who are barely earning more than the official poverty level for years at a time. The end result is that about 80% of those officially defined as living in poverty don’t really experience anything close to what most of us think of as poverty.

What voters envision as poverty is closer to what analysts call chronic poverty. About 2-3% of the population lives in chronic poverty and efforts to assist them are greatly hampered by flawed poverty statistics.

The flaws in the government data trace their roots to the 1960s and the War on Poverty. At the time, experts assumed that most who experienced poverty did so for extended periods of time. It turns out that assumption was inaccurate. Data collected over the years shows that half of those officially defined as living in poverty get out of “poverty” within four months or less. Those people are like some of the examples earlier in this article.

Another problem with the data is that the government figures do not account for differences in cost of living between regions. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of voters believe they should.  Because of that flaw, the government figures consistently overestimate the reality of poverty in rural southern states and underestimate poverty in urban areas throughout the rest of the nation.

These and related issues are addressed in Scott Rasmussen’s latest book, The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not releases new public opinion data every day relating to topics in the news and other items of interest. Please sign up to receive the latest data and insights each day via email.

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The national survey of 1,093 Adults was conducted January 11-12, 2019 by and HarrisX, a polling company specializing in online surveys (see Methodology). It has a +/- 3.0 percentage point Margin of Error with a 95% level of confidence.

Neither Scott Rasmussen nor has any relationship with Rasmussen Reports® (see About Us).

Posted in Poll Results

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