In September, the Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty, a steep increase from the previous year’s report of 43.6 million.

However, in a New York Times piece yesterday, journalist Jason DeParle and colleagues assert that “most poverty experts” would call the Census Bureau’s measure “flawed.”

“Concocted on the fly a half-century ago, the official poverty measure ignores ever more of what is happening to the poor person’s wallet—good and bad,” noted the authors.

Heritage senior research fellow Robert Rector similarly points out that the Census Bureau’s poverty measurement is problematic, as it fails to take into account the large amount of federal assistance that poor households receive through a myriad of government programs.

And this assistance is no small sum. The federal government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on over 70 different welfare programs. However, only around 4 percent of this total is included when calculating poverty. As Rector notes, “the economic resources available to poor persons are vastly greater” than the poverty measure suggests. This fact is underlined by a U.S. Department of Labor study that shows that “one-fifth of households with the lowest incomes appear to spend $1.87 for every $1.00 of income that the Census Bureau says they receive.”

Asked by DeParle et al. about a new, alternate measure of poverty the Census Bureau is set to release, Rector suggested it would, like the current measure, continue to overstate the extent of real deprivation in a way that is unhelpful to solving the problem.

When the American public hears the word poverty, they are thinking about material hardship—bad housing, homelessness and hunger.… Most of the people that are defined as poor by the government are not poor in that sense.

In fact, the typical poor household in the United States is a far cry from what most Americans might expect.

For example, 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning, roughly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV, half have a personal computer, 43 percent have Internet service, one-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV, and more than half have a cell phone. Additionally, around 75 percent own a car or a truck.

Less than 10 percent live in housing that is overcrowded or in poor condition.

Furthermore, the large majority of these families report having enough to eat. In 2009, nearly all—96 percent—of poor parents said that their children never went hungry a single day.

This by no means discounts that there are those who do face serious material hardship. But to target resources effectively to those truly facing deprivation, we need better information. Creating sound anti-poverty policy in the United States begins with an accurate understanding of the nature of the need.

Likewise, policies should address the causes of poverty rather than merely the symptoms. Since the War on Poverty began back in the 1960s, the federal government has taken the approach that putting more dollars into an ever greater number of government programs will solve the problem. This approach has failed. Rather than helping move people from government dependence to self-reliance, it has simply grown the ranks of Americans dependent on federal assistance.

Helping the poor should center on promoting responsibility. Work for the able-bodied should be a guiding principle. Tackling poverty also means addressing one of the greatest causes of poverty: the breakdown of the family, specifically, the rise in the number of unwed births.

Properly defining, understanding, and dealing with the causes of poverty are key to truly assisting those in need.