Our purpose isn’t to fact check political statements, merely to check candidates’ statements in relation to what they have said in the past, whether they have been consistent or horribly inconsistent, but a friend who reads the blog asked me about where John Edwards’ 37 million people living in poverty figure comes from, so, I thought it might be valuable to discuss this a little further.

The best I can imagine, Edwards got the figure from the U.S. Census which puts the poverty rate at 12.6% in 2005 or 37 million people. This is based on a family of four that earns less than $19,307 or a family of two that earns less than $12,334. This is about 7.7 million families. And a poverty rate for children of 17.6% or about 12.9 million children under the age of 18 living in poverty. New Hampshire has the lowest poverty rate (7.5%) while Mississippi has the highest (21.3%).

There are a number of problems with using U.S. census figures to decide the poverty rate and while Edwards is using it rhetorically more than literally, those problems should be pointed out. Some people think the rate is inflated. It fails to take into account frivolous purchases such as a pair of expensive sneakers or a trip to the Dairy Queen and focuses on income, though a percentage of income may be made in extralegal or illegal dealings, in loans and gifts from family and friends, charity from churches or other organizations and welfare itself. Foodstamps and public housing is not considered in U.S. Census poverty figures.

Conversely, some would say the figure is deflated. The U.S. Census, first of all, does not count everyone and those that are least likely to be counted, and least likely to open their door to a census taker, own a telephone or answer the telephone for a census taker are often of the lowest class. Illegal immigrants and the homeless are often uncounted in poverty statistics. The number also fails to take into account housing costs in different regions.

A true estimate of the poverty rate in the United States is difficult or impossible, estimates range from 35 million to 41 million people. Edwards’ 37 million people figure seems reasonable, and at any rate, is based on the U.S. Census, which remains our best tool to calculate poverty. All of his policies and rhetoric stems from this figure and we want to make sure that it is put in context. You can decide if it is inflated or deflated. If he is elected president, this will be the figure that he will be battling to lower and will be an interesting marker to see how consistent his policies are with his goals.