Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.


DC Poverty Rate Dips Down

September 17, 2015

Hard on the results of the Census Bureau’s latest annual Current Population Survey supplement come the vastly more detailed results of its American Community Survey. As the headline says, they indicate what seems a drop in the overall poverty rate for the District of Columbia — down from 18.9% in 2013 to 17.7% last year.*

In human terms, this means that roughly 5,120 fewer District residents lived in poverty, as the Census Bureau’s official measure defines it.

At the same time, fewer residents lived in deep poverty, i.e., with household incomes no greater than 50% of the applicable poverty threshold — 9.1%, as compared to 10.3% in 2013.

These figures are obviously good news. But they’re hardly good enough to pop a champagne cork for. Several major reasons we should remain very concerned.

First, as I’ve said before, the poverty thresholds are extraordinarily low. A single parent and her two children, for example, were counted as poor only if the family’s pre-tax cash income was less than $19,073 — this in a city where the family’s basic needs cost roughly $104,000. Perhaps even more, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has noted.

Second, the District’s poverty rate is still high, even comparatively. The national poverty rate, according to the ACS, was 15.5% last year. The District’s poverty rate also exceeds all but 11 state-level rates.

Third, the poverty rate for children in the District is far higher than the rate for the population as a whole — 26% or more than one in four residents under 18 years old. The deep poverty rate for children is also higher — 12.4%.

True, these rates are lower than in 2013, when they were 27.2% and 16.2%. But we’ve got more children in the District now. So the rate dips — for plain vanilla poverty in particular — reflect less progress than they seem to.

Fourth, we still have large gaps among major race/ethnicity groups in the District — one, though far from the only sign of persistent income inequality, rooted in discriminatory policies and practices. For example:

  • The new poverty rate for blacks is 25.9%, as compared to 6.9% for non-Hispanic whites.
  • 12.7% of blacks lived in deep poverty, while only 4.8% of non-Hispanic whites did.
  • The rates for Hispanics fall in between, as they have in the past — 16.9% and 7.5%.

We find the same sort of divide in household incomes. The median for non-Hispanic white households was $117,134 — $57,512 higher than their median nationwide. The median household income for black residents was barely more than a third of what non-Hispanic whites here had to live on — $40,739.

For the poverty rates themselves, we can find some ready explanations in other ACS figures. For example, the poverty rate for District residents who were at least 25 years old and had less than a high school diploma or the equivalent was 33.7%, as compared to 5.8% for their counterparts with at least a four-year college degree.

Only a small fraction of working-age (16-64 year-old) residents who worked full-time, year round were officially poor — 2.1% — while 45.9% who lived in poverty didn’t work (for pay) at all.

They presumably include residents too disabled to work and dependent on Supplemental Security Income benefits. These, at a maximum, left a single individual about $3,660 below the poverty threshold.

But that leaves 23.4% who worked for at least part of the year, less than full time or both. They were not, by any means, all workers who chose part-time and/or temporary work, as a recent report by DCFPI and partners tells us.

The report includes some policy recommendations to help low-wage hourly workers who are now jerked around — and economically disadvantaged — by unpredictable, erratic work schedules. One can readily find other policy proposals that would, in various ways, significantly reduce poverty rates in the District and nationwide.

Though the ACS gives us new numbers, neither the story they tell nor the solutions they imply are new. Still worth knowing how the prosperity we witness in our gentrifying neighborhoods, as well as our traditionally upper-income havens has egregiously failed to reach so many District residents.

* All the ACS tables include margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. For readability, I’m reporting both as given. However, the high side of the margin for the overall rate could mean no change from 2013.


U.S. Poverty Rate Flat-Lines

September 16, 2015

Defying predictions, the Census Bureau just reported that 14.8% of people in the U.S. — roughly 46.7 million — were officially poor last year. Both the rate and the raw number are so little different from 2013 as to be statistically the same.

The newest rate is 2.3% higher than in 2007, shortly before the recession set in. This is yet further evidence that our economic recovery hasn’t brought recovery to everybody.

Much has rightly been made of flaws in the official measure the figures reflect. These include what the Census Bureau counts and doesn’t as income and the thresholds it perforce uses, i.e., the household incomes that set the upper limits for poverty.

The figures nevertheless represent reasonably accurate trends over time. So they’re disheartening, especially because improvements in the labor market suggested we’d see somewhat lower rates.

Also disheartening is the essentially unchanged deep poverty rate, i.e., the percent of people who lived (who knows how?) on pre-tax cash incomes less than half the applicable threshold — 6.6%. This is a full percent higher than in 2007.

Poverty rates for the major age groups the report breaks out also flat-lined. We thus still see basically the same large disparities.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was markedly higher than the overall rate — 21.1%. It translates into well over 15.5 million children — a third of all poor people in our country. About 6.8 million children — 9.3% — lived in deep poverty.

The senior poverty rate was again the lowest of the three the age groups — 10% or roughly 4.6 million people 65 and older. For seniors, the deep poverty rate apparently ticked up to 3.2%.

We still see marked disparities among major race/ethnicity groups too. For example:

  • The poverty rate for blacks was more than two and a half times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 26.2%, as compared to 10.1%.
  • For blacks, the deep poverty rate was 12%, while only 4.6% of non-Hispanic whites were that poor.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 23.6% and the deep poverty rate 9.6%.
  • By contrast, the poverty rate for Asians was 12% and the deep poverty rate 5.6%. Several analyses suggest we’d see a quite different picture if the Census Bureau differentiated among the sub-populations this group comprises.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ve got new numbers, but no real change. So they tell the same old story. We’ve got a lot of prosperity in this country, but it’s far from equally shared.

We know quite a bit about how we could move toward greater economic and social justice. What we don’t have is the political will where we most need it.

NOTE: The Census Bureau simultaneously released the results of its Supplemental Poverty Measure — a departure from past practice. I’ll deal with them separately.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the reason the U.S. poverty rate for 2014 isn’t statistically different from the 2013 rate is that the Census Bureau reported results from a redesigned survey it began using last year, along with the old survey. Last year, it reported what the old survey showed. This year, what the new one did.

New Plan to Reduce Child Poverty in America

August 20, 2015

Children have the highest poverty rate of any age group in our country. Nearly 14.7 million of them — 19.9% — are officially poor, according to the latest Census report.

The percent is even higher for infants and toddlers, a new brief from the Center for American Progress tells us — nearly 23% or well over one in five. CAP has a four-part proposal to reduce the child poverty rate — and the depth of poverty for children who’d still be poor.

Unlike a plan I earlier blogged on, its parts all have to do with the Child Tax Credit. The first part, tucked into the brief as a starting point, is a permanent extension of the improvement the Recovery Act made. It’s now among the refundable tax credit improvements due to expire in 2017.

CAP’s plan would then do what some progressives advocated for the Recovery Act — drop the threshold for claiming the CTC to the first dollar of earned income, rather than the first dollar over $3,000.

At the same time, the plan would make the CTC fully refundable. In other words, a family would get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service for the entire amount its income tax liability fell short of the deductions and credits it claimed.

The credit now phases in to a maximum of $1,000 per child, leaving low-income parents with only a partial credit — or in some cases, no credit at all for a second or third child.

A third change would index the per child credit to inflation so that it didn’t lose value over time. Like the other two parts I’ve cited, linking the credit to the Consumer Price Index the IRS uses for tax provisions would make the CTC more like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Now comes a part that CAP refers to as “enhancing” the CTC, but would actually be more like the child allowances many European countries (and a few others) provide. Families with children less than three years old would get $125 a month, regardless of income or how they net out at tax time.

They’d get this supplement monthly as a direct deposit to their bank account or on a debit card. So they’d have more to spend as they needed it to pay for the costs of caring for their babies and toddlers.

These costs can be very high. I’ve already said my bit about diapers. Full-time day care in a center for an infant cost, on average, more than $10,000 a year in half the states in 2013. And far from all poor and near-poor families can have their children’s daycare costs subsidized by either of the two main federal funding sources.

Rolling all the costs together, a CNN Money calculator tells us that a low-income family will have to pay, on average, an estimated $176,550 to raise a child born two years ago — $35,880 more if they live in an urban area in the northeast part of the country.

Now, CAP’s proposals would hardly supply parents with the wherewithal to pay for anything approaching this. Nor are they intended to. They wouldn’t eliminate child poverty either. They would, however, reduce it.

The overall poverty rate for children under seventeen would fall by 13.2%, CAP says. About 18% of children under three would be lifted out of poverty altogether — this, I assume, because of the extra income boost parents of children this young would get.

CAP also looks at the combined effects of its proposals on families with infants and toddlers who’d still have incomes (less any EITC refund and/or cash benefits) below the federal poverty line.

For them, it estimates how far its proposal would go toward closing the “poverty gap,” i.e., the difference between their average income and the FPL.

The gap would shrink by an estimated 26.1% nationwide, it reports. But, of course, the proposals would shrink the gap for all now-poor families with children — perhaps, in fact, lifting some of them above the FPL and, for sure, reducing the poverty gap for all.

The gap-closing effects of the proposals would vary considerably from state to state, a map supplement to the brief shows. They range from 25.4% in Hawaii to 12% in Wyoming. We who live in the District of Columbia could see a gap roughly 16.4% smaller.

CAP’s proposals would cost an estimated $29.2 billion if they were all in place this year. Somewhat more in the future, since the child tax credit would increase to keep pace with consumer price inflation.

This is hardly a big investment, even for spending through the tax code. So-called tax expenditures will cost the federal government about $1.22 trillion this year, the National Priorities Project reports.

Unlike many of the tax breaks, however, investments to reduce child poverty would pay for themselves many times over. An oft-cited study conducted in 2007 concluded that child poverty cost our country about half a trillion a year. Adjusting for inflation, CAP puts the total at more than $672 billion.

But this is a low-end estimate because the study included only the largest and mostly easily quantifiable costs, as the authors dutifully noted.

One doesn’t, I think, want our policies to hinge on dollars saved by alleviating the hardships and lifelong consequences of growing up in a family that’s so short on money as to be officially poor — or the hardships parents suffer to do the best they can for their children.

But if the return on investment would help CAP’s proposals gain support in a Congress that seems reluctant to even sustain the anti-poverty programs we’ve got, a strong talking point is ready to hand.


A Bold, Smart Bill to End Child Poverty in America

June 15, 2015

Four Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill to reduce — indeed, to end — child poverty in our country. Will it pass? Not in this Congress. But as a lobbyist friend used to remind me, it took eight years to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.

So should we press for a law like the proposed Child Poverty Reduction Act? I think so, as do some of our leading children’s advocates. Three reasons, with an asterisk.

Far Too Many Poor Children. Well over 14.6 million children in the U.S. are officially poor, according to the latest report. That’s nearly one in five. We’ve got too many poor adults as well, but children are the poorest age group the Census Bureau counts.

This is still true when the Bureau uses its better poverty measure, which factors in major near-cash benefits like SNAP (food stamps), as well as refundable tax credits. These lower the child poverty rate, but still leave nearly 12.2 million children below the applicable poverty threshold.

Lifelong Consequences. Children born to poor parents are more likely than others to die while infants. Research tells us that those who survive, as most do, can soon suffer damages to their brain and other systems caused by toxic levels of stress.

They’re at high risk for physical and mental health problems due to a wide range of poverty-related factors — inadequate nutrition, unstable (or no) housing, parental abuse and (more often) neglect, neighborhood violence and exposure to toxins, e.g., mold, lead paint, air pollution from nearby power plants, dumps and/or highways.

Needless to say (I hope), children suffering from such problems don’t arrive at school ready to learn — or in some cases, behave themselves, as classroom decorum dictates.

They’re more likely to miss school days because they’re ill, can’t get to school or have to stay home to care for a younger child — or because they’re suspended for misbehaving, especially likely if they’re black, Hispanic or Native American.

They may choose to miss school days because they don’t want to sit in classrooms where they can’t understand the lessons and to suffer humiliation because of that and/or because their peers gang up on them.

Ultimately, far too many drop up — mostly, though perhaps not always because they’re failing academically. Or they graduate, even though they can barely read or do basic math. Barring further education, most will face a lifetime of low-wage employment — if they’re lucky. Some, as we know, will find more gainful employment in drug dealing and the like.

A somewhat dated but still indicative study estimated that child poverty costs our country $500 billion a year in lost earnings, higher crime-related costs and increased health expenditures.

So if we need a cost-benefit rationale, which I’d like to think we don’t, then making child poverty rare and brief would seem a sensible priority.

Not a National Priority. We’ve already got programs to break the poverty cycle — too many to even simply list here. We’ve got research indicating other promising initiatives, e.g., the housing pilot evaluation I blogged on recently. We’ve got at least one full-blown agenda for dramatically reducing child poverty.

But, as First Focus President Bruce Lesley observes, tackling child poverty isn’t a national priority to the extent that top-level policymakers feel they must actually do something about it — or that we, the public, demand they do.

The Child Poverty Reduction Act aims to change this by importing elements of an approach that worked in the UK. Adopted there in 2000, it drove policy changes and investments that cut the child poverty rate, as we measure it,* in half by 2008.

The proposed approach has three major prongs. Like the UK’s, it sets goals — half as many children living in poverty and none in deep poverty in 10 years and no children in poverty at all 10 years thereafter.

The proposal doesn’t include new and/or reformed policies and programs to achieve these goals. Here too, it’s like the initial UK law. It does, however, differ somewhat in how the agenda would develop.

The elements of the UK’s child poverty initiative emerged over time, though the goal-setting law required both the overarching government and the nation-level governments the UK comprises to issue strategies.

The CPRA would instead set the stage for policymaking by mandating a national plan for achieving the reduction-elimination goals, plus recommendations for achieving related goals, e.g. understanding the root causes of child poverty, eliminating race, ethnicity and other disparities.

A working group of officials in at least six federal agencies would be responsible for developing the plan and other recommendations. It would first, however, have to commission workshops and research papers from the independent National Academy of Sciences.

So we’d have a blueprint of sorts, based on research already conducted — and perhaps new studies — to launch the actual war on child poverty.

Then, much as in the UK, the working group would monitor relevant programs and services and annually publish results. Reports would include states’ child poverty reduction efforts and recommendations for further legislation.

Political Will. As Lesley says, all major parties in the UK have embraced the child poverty goals there. And their leaders apparently feel they’re accountable to the public for the impacts of their policies and other decisions.

They face a major test because recent projections suggest the child poverty rate will rise, as a report for First Focus notes. The policy largely responsible for bringing the rate down would cost too much to replicate, it says, “even if the political appetite were there.”

The lesson here isn’t one we have to learn from the UK. We’ve had goals before. Then-candidate Obama was going to end child hunger by this year, for example.

We’ve had recommendations from independent research agencies, including the recently overridden exclusion of white potatoes from foods mothers could use their WIC benefits to buy. We’ve had reams of plans to achieve worthy goals — more than 243 to end homelessness, for example.

Don’t mean to sound cynical. My point is simply that even if Congress passed the CPRA, we’d still be merely looking at the annual Census reports and shaking our heads unless we create — and sustain – enough political will to convince our elected officials that they have to show progress toward the goals.

* Countries in the European Union ordinarily use a poverty measure based on their median income. Our official measure uses incomes adjusted only for inflation to divide the poor from the not-poor year after year. The UK now uses both types of measures for child poverty.


What Could Lift More Seniors Out of Poverty?

May 26, 2015

The senior poverty rate, according to the official measure, is lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole and considerably lower than the child poverty rate. It still translates into about 4.2 million people 65 and older whose incomes fell below the applicable poverty threshold last year — just $11,354 for those who live alone.

The more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure boosts the senior poverty rate to 14.6% — about 2.3 million more people. But for Social Security benefits, the rate would have been a whopping 52.6%. This is why Social Security is justifiably called the most effective anti-poverty program we have.

Yet we do still have some 6.5 million seniors without enough income to live on. And our poverty prevention measures tend to focus on younger people, as Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging, says.

We’ve got a battery of programs to support education and work-related training, for example. And we’ve got a spectrum of programs to prevent — or at the very least, reduce — poverty among those who find work, especially those with dependent family members. In other words, it’s not just younger people our measures focus on, but working families.

All too late, Prindiville observes, for someone in her 70s or 80s who’s struggling now after a lifetime of low-wage jobs. “We cannot just hold up our hands and say we should have helped … [seniors] 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago.”

So what would help them now? Prindiville proposes a five-step plan. He’s managed to get them into a single, compact post. I, as usual, want to flesh out the issues and solutions.

So I’ll deal here with the first two, overlapping steps and leave the remaining three for a followup.

Strengthen the Existing Safety Net and Social Insurance Programs*

Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare and Medicaid largely account for the 26% drop in the official senior poverty rate since 1960, Prindiville says. First and foremost, we need to protect them.

None of those proposed Social Security benefits cuts, increased Medicare cost-sharing, e.g., through a voucher plan, or tighter limits on Medicaid coverage, which we could expect to see under the Congressional Republicans’ upcoming block grant proposals.

On the strengthening side, I suppose Prindiville would endorse the latest version of what was originally the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.

It would change the benefits formula, providing an average of $65 a month more, and base annual adjustments on an as-yet-to-be-completed Consumer Price Index specifically for the elderly. And unlike the 2013 bill, it would ensure that formerly low-wage workers receive benefits at least big enough to lift them over the poverty line, provided they’d worked at least 10 years.

Of course, like its predecessor, the current bill would also keep the Social Security Trust Fund from coming up short on the money needed to pay full benefits past its projected insolvency in 2033.

Rather than simply scrapping the cap on payroll taxes, as some have proposed, it would trigger taxes on all income — not only wage income — over $250,000.

Improve Supplemental Security Income

Let’s just say proposals to boost Social Security retirement benefits won’t go anywhere in this Congress. So we’ll still have seniors in poverty.

We would anyway because not all seniors used to work — or have spouses that did. And even a work history often won’t yield a benefit anyone can live on unless it spans at least 35 years — this because of the way the Social Security Administration calculates benefits.

For the poorest 2.1 million seniors, SSI provides a safety net. But it’s in need of strengthening too. The maximum benefit — currently $733 a month — is nearly $250 less than would be needed to lift a single person over the poverty line.

No benefits at all for individuals whose savings and other “countable resources” are worth more than $2,000. Nor for couples who’ve more than $3,000. So seniors who’ve saved even a modest amount don’t qualify, though they surely need some stash they can draw on for expenses like Medicare deductibles and co-pays.

And as I’ve written before, the formula for SSI benefits adjusts them downward, based on other income beneficiaries receive. The adjustments kick in only if income exceeds a certain amount, however.

We see a preference for income earned from work — understandable, since it encourages SSI recipients to enter (or reenter) the workforce. For other income, the exclusion — or disregard, as Prindiville calls it — is a mere $20 a month, plus the value of a few other public benefits.

The benefits reduction for other income is dollar-for-dollar — twice as much as for wage income. This isn’t a problem for seniors only. But it’s a big problem for them because they’ll lose as much as they gain from even a piddling increase in Social Security retirement benefits.

Congress hasn’t updated the exclusions since it created the program in 1972. If they’d been adjusted to reflect consumer price increases, the unearned income exclusion would be roughly $112 today.

Bills that died in the last Congress would have addressed these problems, as well as what can be large benefits reductions when a friend of relative helps out with food, housing costs and/or utility bills.

Prindiville says he expects the bills to be introduced again this spring. Nothing thus far, but they probably will be — whether to be better fate remains to be seen. Not holding my breath, folks.

* Prindiville’s top-line recommendation implies that Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare are safety net programs like SSI and Medicaid, but they’re insurance programs because workers pay premiums of a sort, as payroll taxes. I’ve modified the recommendation accordingly because I, among others, feel it’s important to preserve the distinction.

Who Should Decide What Poverty Is?

May 20, 2015

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.


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