It seems like it should be so simple to know how many and what types of people live in poverty, but in reality it isn’t. As highlighted in the Why section of this blog, the official method for measuring poverty in the U.S. was developed decades ago and has several serious limitations. This is more than just a technical issue; it has important policy implications. After all, in order to know how to best attack poverty, we first need to understand exactly who is poor.
A recent commentary on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity (which, by the way, is a great resource for a wide range of resources and opinions on addressing poverty) by Rebecca Blank and Robert Kerr called “Poor Measurement” succinctly summarizes some of the limitations and current efforts to improve how we measure poverty. (A longer explanation of their argument is in “Improving the Measurement of Poverty,” a Brookings publication). As the authors point out, the official methodology in the U.S. does not adequately account for how employment and households have changed since the 1960s when it was first developed, nor does it account for regional differences in the cost of living (i.e. the income needed to be out of poverty is the same in Beverly Hills as in rural Alabama).
The good news is that there is a clear blueprint for creating a more accurate methodology for measuring poverty, recommended by an expert panel by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The bad news is that this panel made its recommendations in 1995 (no, that is not a typo) and still there has been no official change made by the federal government. Researchers and policy makers looking for more precise numbers on poverty have devised alternative methods for estimating poverty (e.g. using a ratio such as 200% of the federal poverty line). New York City has even moved forward on doing its own calculations, based on the NAS recommendations. Federal legislation has been introduced in Congress to implement the NAS recommendations, and Blank and Kerr suggest the Obama administration could make the change administratively without legislation.
So, what’s the hang up? Certainly part of the problem is that such an alternative measurement would certainly increase the number of people defined as living in poverty. I remember a “West Wing” episode several years ago in which the administration was considering revising the poverty methodology to give a more accurate picture of how many and who was living in poverty. But in the end they decided against it because the political advisers said that President Bartlet (played by the great Martin Sheen) would be known as the leader on whose watch the numbers of people living in poverty increased substantially overnight.
Well, poverty is certainly going to swell over the next couple years no matter what, so perhaps this is the perfect time politically to change how we measure poverty. Besides, with a clearer understanding of who is poor, hopefully we can be smarter about how best to help them get out, and stay out, of poverty.