Let’s step back for a moment — oh, lets — from all the budget and other hot-button issues that will make life better or worse for people in poverty here in the U.S. Let’s consider how we decide who those people are.
As I suppose you know, we decide, for official purposes, by using a measure developed more than 50 years ago. This is the measure that becomes the basis for deciding who is poor enough to qualify for most of our major safety-net benefits.
Knowing it’s outdated — and was crude from the get-go — the Census Bureau has developed a “supplemental” measure, which some other analysts now use. Though more complex and sophisticated than the official measure, it still reflects needs experts have decided are essential, e.g., food, shelter and utilities, clothing, health insurance.
This, economist Stewart Lansley and coauthor Joanna Mack say, is a technocratic way of going at what’s essentially a philosophical question: what it means to be poor. What if we instead asked everyday people what they think necessary for an acceptable standard of living in our society?
The team ought to know because that’s what they’ve done for Great Britain, though thus far only as one of several alternatives to the official measure there. That measure, like ours, uses a straightforward income threshold. But unlike ours, it bases the threshold on median household income.
Below 60% of whatever the median happens to be at any given time means a household is officially poor. So the measure is relative, as it also is in other European Union countries, plus some additional countries in the OECD.
The threshold, however, still reflects a line experts and policymakers have drawn — in this case, to identify people whose resources are “so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.”
Lansley and Mack advocate a “consensual” poverty measure. It’s consensual in that it’s based on surveys that ask the public to identify items they think are necessities not merely for survival, but for living in their society.
So the surveys include not only food, “damp free” housing and the like, but some of those amenities the far-right Heritage Foundation cites to trash on our poverty measure — and our public benefits programs. The survey, in fact, goes beyond goods and services of any sort to include “social activities” no one should have to do without.
The researchers then take items and activities a majority of respondents have chosen as necessities of life. Adults who lack three or more fall into the poverty group, as do children who lack at least two. (Basing the counts on multiple lacks is intended to exclude adults who don’t have — or engage in — one thing or the other because they’ve chosen not to, even though they could afford it.)
A basic premise here is that the deprivation we commonly view as poverty depends on cultural and social conditions. Whatever the type(s) or degree(s) of deprivation our poverty definition entails don’t properly apply everywhere and for always.
A second, related premise is that deprivation includes the experience of being marginalized due to the indirect consequences of not having enough income and/or sufficient public benefits. We see this in the fact that a majority of UK survey respondents view the ability to afford a school trip for one’s children as a necessity.
Beyond this, the method formally recognizes that “[p]overty is a value judgment,” as the inventor of our own official measure said.
So the question becomes who should make the value judgment — experts who define some set of minimal needs and the compute the costs or the public, whose views and everyday living activities set norms that, as Lansley and Mack have said, cause people who can’t afford to meet them “to be regarded as deprived and to feel deprived.”
The team argues that the public opinion methods is “the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty.” In the UK, at least, it’s a standard that has support from “all social groups,” they say, cutting across classes, age groups, gender and “very importantly, political affiliation.”
They view it hopefully as an approach that could “refocus the discussion” — heated debate actually — about the safety net and the government’s proper role in fighting poverty.
Whether such broad support for a poverty definition would make a difference in our public policies is, to my mind, doubtful. We know from polls, for example, that a large majority of American voters view SNAP (the food stamp program) as important for our country.
The notion of a poverty definition grounded in the public’s view of the necessities of life in our country is nevertheless intriguing. If nothing else, it gives us insights into rarely surfaced assumptions underlying our poverty measures.
That, in itself, is, I think, worthwhile as the debate over who’s truly poor, why and what’s appropriate for our government to do rages on.