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Researchers Find Surprising Results After Testing A New Way To Measure Poverty

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Some surprising research about poverty, researchers in New York are testing a new way to measure poverty, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Officially, we say a person is poor if their income falls below a certain level, like $24,000 for a family of four. But that doesn't tell the whole story, like what all the people lined up at a food pantry in the Bronx are really going through.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You can get another box of cereal too and the mashed potatoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And the mashed potatoes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: Not everyone here is officially poor, but they're still struggling to get enough to eat. One reason could be huge medical bills taking up income that would otherwise go for food. Some researchers at Columbia University have decided that it would be better to measure poverty by looking not so much at what people have but at what they don't have.

CHRISTOPHER WIMER: For instance, how often are you unable to put food on the table? How often are you falling behind on your bills? Another example would be having your utilities cut off - so your phone bill, your light bill, et cetera.

FESSLER: Christopher Wimer of Columbia has been tracking what he calls material hardship, the problems people face meeting their basic needs. Working with the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty group, he and colleagues have followed thousands of New Yorkers since 2012, checking in with them every three months. And they found some striking results.

WIMER: It's actually close to half of New York City residents who will experience material hardship over a two-year period.

FESSLER: And he's talking about something pretty severe, like hunger or eviction or not getting necessary medical care. Wimer says even those with incomes two or three times above the poverty line report such hardships. He says the findings could help shape how and when we respond to those in need. Scott Winship of the conservative Manhattan Institute, agrees that the research shows some useful things, like how many people experience poverty for just a few weeks or months at a time. But he also has some reservations.

SCOTT WINSHIP: It's not at all clear what they mean by severe hardships.

FESSLER: Winship notes that even those who say they have more than a million dollars in assets reported facing a severe hardship at some point in time. He thinks that could distort our picture of who needs help.

WINSHIP: To misdirect our attention and our public resources away from people who really are struggling.

FESSLER: Wimer counters that there are many things to consider when looking at need, like how much debt an individual owes. And he says the research will continue. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.