Who Should Decide What Poverty Is?

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Knowing it’s outdated — and was crude from the get-go — the Census Bureau has developed a “supplemental” measure, which some other analysts now use.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.

Has this protected the program from cuts, let alone produced the needed benefits boost and other changes I tend to harp on?

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.


5 Responses to Who Should Decide What Poverty Is?

  1. zoom314 says:

    It’s unclear what will happen to AB474 in the CA State Legislature, since this bill is in the Assembly Budget Subcommittee’s Suspense File, instead of in the Appropriations Suspense File. I think this might be because the bill could cost about $2.5 Billion a year.

    AB474 would give 1.073 Million SSI/SSP recipients a raise to 112% of poverty from 90%, in 2016 this would be $198 more per month added to the State Supplemental Payment, since California is a very expensive place to live at.

    So far AB 474 is at 25% of the bills progress thru the CA Legislatures Committee process..

    Asm. Cheryl Brown [D]
    Asm. Tony Thurmond [D]
    Asm. Cristina Garcia [D]
    Sen. Carol Liu [D]
    Asm. Kansen Chu [D]


    This legislation is required to be approved by at least a 2/3rds vote, so far in 2 committees this bill as amended has drawn Unanimous support, even from, gasp, ‘Republicans’, I think Hell has frozen over.

    I know I could use this, as $889.40 a month is not always enough, I’ve got lots to replace and/or repair, this can be for My car(paid off), My mobile home(no mortgage), the contents of My mobile home or even My clothes, just buying car parts for a 16 year old car can be expensive, the last time FORD stocked any parts for a 1999 Escort ZX2(Hot coupe, a 2yr only model), was in 2011. I can forget about buying a used car to replace My aging car, since one dealer said every place He looked up required at least $1600 a month minimum of income and what I have currently doesn’t cut it.

    If I were able to get this I could probably get a deal from Carmax, but this depends on Me fixing any real problems in My current car first, having about $2500 for a deposit and for Carmax to buy My old car, I’m slowly buying parts for said repairs, like a a replacement for My broken tach(bought), a used drivers seat that will have to be recovered to match a beige interior(current one is half broken), a tune up(sparkplugs, bought), a transmission fluid change, new front shocks, new brake pads and shoes since Mine are getting older(bought), work on the a/c to find that last leak under the dash, replace the car stereo with something newer since the CD changer is not able to play CD’s anymore, I know this is quite a list.

    And I still have to buy things like clothes, ram for My replacement PC(this one is dying, a power regulator problem on the motherboard, the PC is wired up internally like an XMAS tree to stay even remotely stable), get the gas heater for the mobile home repaired in Oct or Nov, pay down personal debt, pay for property taxes on the mobile home, etc, etc, etc, etc..

    I’m doing this anyway since a car is My only viable way to go shopping for food in town(12.5 miles) or to collect My mail at the local US Post Office(2.5 miles) or to go see a Doctor(12 miles) or to go talk to the SSA if needed(55 miles) or to just visit My few remaining relatives(45 miles). All miles quoted are one way.

    I’d need a coupe again, the drivers seat is almost all the way back, I’m 6’1″ tall, about 390lbs, as such only a FORD would do, probably a 2007-2013 Mustang since FORD no longer makes coupes outside of the Mustang and I don’t like SUV/crossover type vehicles and My severe anxiety wouldn’t either and most auto makers only make Sedans these days, I’d skip the earlier years, since 2004 and earlier have crappy fragile driver seats and 2005-2006 have Master Power Relay problems when the outside temps go below 38F(I have no garage, just a carport awning and I can’t erect one, as the land here is not mine, the land is rented), what happens then? The battery gets sucked dry by the Master Power Relay, this was cured in the 2007 model year I was told(by a FORD Dealer, long after I’d bought the 2006, naturally), I know of these problems cause I’d previously owned a 1987 Mustang GT hatchback and a 2006 Mustang GT. I’m disabled cause of joint problems and from surgery in late 2002 when I had broke a leg and dislocated both hips from a fall(among other reasons), the surgery ruined an ankle and of course I have Osteoarthritis in all of My joints since at least age 40, the OA started in My shoulders, I’m turning 55 in about 5 weeks, since 2003 I’ve been disabled and unable to work ever since.

    Just cause one becomes disabled, does not make one lazy or change ones life beyond introducing limitations, I don’t have the endurance that I had before I became disabled, but then some people don’t know what they talk about, but then Rich people seldom do(aka: the KOCH’s and the GOP in Congress), as they haven’t been there or walked a mile in My shoes..

    Government isn’t the problem, it’s those greedy people outside of Government that are the problem and are trying to corrupt the Government of the people, by the people and of the people..

  2. zoom314 says:

    Government of the people, by the people and for the people..

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    Trying to understand your situation better. Do you receive SSI or SSDI?

  4. zoom314 says:

    SSI(Supplemental Security Income), SSP is what I get from the State of California, both are managed by the SSA, also no SSI recipient in CA gets Food Stamps(SNAP) cause of a CA State Policy called Cash Out, which needs to be ended. AB474 would only effect those who get SSI who are single.

    There are more than a few bills in the CA State Legislature, some deal with Medi-Cal reimbursement, a property tax exemption increase(from $7,000 to $25,000 a year), etc, etc.

    I hope this helps some.

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    Yes, it does. Thank you.

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