Bills That Count

I’ve been having a running discussion with some fellow advocates about how to impact public policy. One says there’s no point in presenting hard data. Legislators “aren’t interested in the truth.” They’re interested in getting re-elected. So what we need to do is create a groundswell of constituent pressure.

No doubt about the value of grassroots activism. But I think data have a role to play too, especially when issues are complex and call for complex, evolving solutions. As the business management gurus say, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

So it’s good to see that bills have been introduced in the Congress that would give us a better fix on one of the most complex issues we’ve got–poverty itself.

As I’ve written before, the current federal poverty measure gives us a very incomplete picture of the problem–how many people are poor, who they are and where. Experts, advocates, even policymakers have known this for a long time. But nothing’s happened to change it.

Last year, a bill was introduced to belatedly implement recommendations for an improved poverty measure that was developed by the National Academy of Sciences. This bill–the Measuring American Poverty–has been reintroduced in the House as H.R. 2909 and in the Senate as S. 1625.

Under the MAP Act:

  • The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Standards would develop a “modern poverty measure” generally based on the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations.
  • The Census Bureau would publish poverty rates based on this measure, as well as on the “traditional poverty measure,” i.e., the one in use now.
  • The National Academy of Sciences would be commissioned to develop recommendations for two additional measures–a measure of the income a family would need to afford the costs of a “safe and decent, but modest standard of living” and a measure of the extent to which individuals are at risk of being unable to afford needed medical care.

The new measures would be only a first step. Under the MAP Act, the “traditional poverty measure” would still be used to determine eligibility for federal benefits and the amounts and kinds of benefits provided. So there’d be no direct impact on poor people, unless state and local governments decided to adopt the “modern” measure for their own programs.

Congress could, of course, switch federal programs to the “modern” measure. But, as the Center for American Progress points out, the new measure is likely to change poverty rates–not only overall, but among populations and among states. So adopting it for federal benefits would be politically challenging–as changes always are when some stand to lose what others gain.

Still, the MAP Act would give us a better understanding of the extent of deprivation in this country and a better benchmark for the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. It would also give us a radically different measure that could, over time, become the basis for efforts to ensure that everyone in this very wealthy country of ours has a decent standard of living.

But first Congress has to pass the MAP Act, and the prospects don’t look great. The bill has only 13 cosponsors in the House and one in the Senate. And, as columnist Alec MacGillis observes, poverty isn’t high on the Democrats’ agenda–let alone the seemingly wonkish issue of how we define and measure it.

Meanwhile, health care reform is absorbing virtually all the political energy. Congress will nevertheless have to complete work on Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations before members can go home to work on their real top priority–getting re-elected.

So revamping the federal poverty measure may, once again, get put off to another day. Or maybe not. It could get tucked into some other piece of legislation. You never can tell about these things.

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