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Finding A More Nuanced View Of Poverty's 'Black Hole'

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Ask Anne Valdez what poverty means for her, and her answer will describe much more than a simple lack of money.

"It's like being stuck in a black hole," says Valdez, 47, who is unemployed and trying to raise a teenage son in Coney Island, New York City. "Poverty is like literally being held back from enjoying life, almost to the point of not being able to breathe."

For years, researchers have complained that the way the government measures income and poverty is severely flawed, that it provides an incomplete — and even distorted — view.

Now researchers from Columbia University and the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty group, are trying to get a more nuanced picture of what it means to be poor and struggling. They're following 2,300 New York City families over two years, asking detailed questions about their finances, their hardships and their responses.

Michael Weinstein of the Robin Hood Foundation says one thing they're trying to learn is which programs work and which ones don't.

"So, we see that you were unemployed in January of last year. What did you do about it?" Weinstein says they ask families. "Did you seek job training? If you sought job training, did you learn a skill? Were you able to translate that skill into a job? Were you able to keep that job? Those are kinds of questions that have to do with how things evolve over time."

It's also the kind of information many current surveys don't provide. The researchers aren't just asking families about their incomes, but about whether they've faced what researchers call material hardship. Did they have trouble paying their rent? Did they lose their home or apartment? Did they run out of money for food, or put off going to the doctor?

"These are severe problems, and what's startling about the results of this survey is the percentage of families who suffer those problems, even though they are not technically poor," Weinstein says.

In fact, an initial report out Tuesday finds that 37 percent of New Yorkers faced a severe material hardship over the past year, even though the city's official poverty rate is 21 percent. Even more striking is that many people with incomes well above the poverty line also face such hardships.

Chris Wimer, a research scientist at the Columbia University Population Research Center, says there are many possible explanations.

"Mental health issues," Wimer says, "[or] it could be excessive debt. So if a large portion of people's income is being used to service past medical debts, credit card debts, student loans, things like that, that may leave less room in the budget, ultimately."

Another thing they're asking is whether people have enough money set aside for an emergency, like a broken-down car. Wimer hopes the findings will help inform the national debate over how best to help the poor.

Scott Winship, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, thinks it might. He says the problem of poverty is far more complex than it's often portrayed.

"The full test of how adequate our anti-poverty policy is can't simply be, have we moved people above a line?" he says. "Or by cutting this program or that program, are we moving more people below the line?"

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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