Thursday, September 01, 2005

Statistics: The Katrina Index

I'm in the midst of analyzing the latest poverty statistics. A full report on them can be found here. Poverty rose to 12.7% in 2004, up from 12.5% in 2003 - about a million extra people. This extends a four year trend of increasing poverty that began in 2000. (Can anyone else remember something big that occurred in 2000? An election followed by major policy shifts?)

This got me to thinking - what if Katrina is the best measure of poverty in America? Think about it: New Orleans is a city of roughly 500,000 people. It's estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people, when faced with the prospect of impending death and destruction couldn't leave the city. I've seen estimates that said there were 78,000 people in emergency shelters. Thousands more are trapped in their homes, unable to leave due to medical and mobility constraints or unwilling to leave their few possessions behind, and many of these people have died.

A poverty rate of 12.7% translates into roughly 37 million Americans. And there are tens of millions more who are not counted by this measure, which most professionals believe undercounts true poverty. With the effects of Katrina, it is now a surety that poverty will go up again in 2005.

But using what I dub "The Katrina Index," between 8 and 20 percent of Americans are so poor that they could be killed at any time by a natural disaster, unforeseen circumstances, untreated medical problems, etc. In a country of roughly 295 million people, that translates into 24 to 59 million people living under the constant fear of immediate death. This, in the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world. I can only imagine how horrible it must be in places like Iraq.

We can argue about poverty statistics, whether they over-count or under-count, whether or not the people living in poverty are truly poor, whether they fail to capture the true prosperity or desperation of our great country. But the tragedy of Katrina should be a clarion call for our country. Tens of millions are suffering on a daily basis, and have to stare into the abyss on a daily basis. This is intolerable.

Since its my job to understand this stuff, I'll probably be blogging a lot more about it over the next week or so. Sigh.
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