We've discussed national poverty numbers around these parts, and the difficulty of pinning down a decent definition of "poverty" before, but I think the Economic Policy Institute has the right way of measuring this stuff here. They've drawn up a budget for families, figuring out how much it would cost to purchase basic necessitieshousing, transportation, food, child care, health care, etc.in various regions, and then looked to see how many families make enough to meet those basic expenses. Whereas the official poverty rate hovers around 12.7 percent, and continues to rise, EPI found that the percentage of families that couldn't meet the basic budget was 29.7 percent. In other words, nearly a third of all American family don't make enough to buy basic necessities. (One note: EPI doesn't seem to have included non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, in their calculation of income.)
As it turns out, the Midwest had the "smallest" problem in this regard, with a still-shocking-but-relatively-low 23.4 percent of families unable to meet the budget, as compared with over 30 percent in the Northeast, South, and West, which may in part explain some of those "What's the matter with Kansas?" mysteries. (In fact, California and New York, two of the most liberal states nationally, had the biggest problems on this measure.) Meanwhile, 42.5 percent of families who work less than full-time year-round sit below the budget, but lest anyone think that simply getting a job will solve everything (and that assumes that there are jobs to be had), 22.8 percent of those families working full-time, year-round still could not afford basic necessities.