Five Decades Later, Time To Change The Way We Define Poverty?

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 8, 2014 10:29 pm
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Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson famously declared his War on Poverty more than 46 million Americans are still poor. The official poverty rate has dropped only a few points in the last half century. Critics say that's partly because the government is still using an outdated measure of poverty. It's based on what it cost to feed a family back in the 1950s.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: How do you fight a war if you don't know who are where the enemy is? When President Johnson announced the War on Poverty 50 years ago today, the federal government had no official way to measure the problem. So historian Michael Katz of the University of Pennsylvania says authorities latched on to a simple benchmark drawn up by a government statistician named Mollie Orshansky.

MICHAEL KATZ: She didn't have any illusions this was a really true or accurate measure of poverty. It was a kind of convenient yardstick.

HORSLEY: Orshansky took the cost of a minimum food budget for various family sizes and multiplied by three, because in those days a typical family spent about one-third of its income on groceries. Alice O'Connor, who studies poverty at UC, Santa Barbara, says Orshansky figured any family below that threshold wouldn't have enough food on the table.

ALICE O'CONNOR: I think Mollie Orshansky in saying if you really want to use a minimalistic measure, this is the one you use was precisely trying to say, OK, this is really bare bones.

HORSLEY: And the government is still using that bare bones formula of a minimum food budget times three to define poverty, five decades later.

Rebecca Blank of the University of Wisconsin said the numbers are updated each year to reflect inflation, but otherwise there's been almost no change.

REBECCA BLANK: This is a very politically substantive measure. No president wants to be the person who redefines poverty and poverty goes up on their watch. And to be honest, no president wants to be the person who redefines poverty and poverty goes down, because then they get accused of playing with data.

HORSLEY: Blank is one of many social scientists who've criticized the poverty measure as out of date. Food is now a much smaller part of the typical family budget, while housing, medicine and child care cost more. The official measure also fails to account for many kinds of government assistance, such as food stamps and heating aid.

BLANK: So when someone like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s says we fought a war on poverty and poverty won, what actually he should have said was we fought a war on poverty and we have no idea what we did, because our measure doesn't measure any of the things we used in that war.

HORSLEY: Until last year, Blank was acting commerce secretary in the Obama administration, where she led the push for a supplemental poverty measure. It takes into account how family budgets have changed over the decades, and how government programs have helped to make ends meet. This supplemental measure shows two-and-a-half million more Americans were poor in 2012 than fell below the official poverty line. But the supplemental measure also shows a much bigger decline in poverty since the late 1960s.

BLANK: You can see when food stamps kick in what the effect is. You can see the effect of the Earned Income Tax Credit. You know, you can see the effect of housing subsidies and how that affects certain groups in the population.

HORSLEY: The supplemental measure also reflects the different costs of living and varying levels of welfare payments in different parts of the country. So it shows more poor people in California, for example, and fewer poor in Kentucky.

Conservatives, like Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, suggest all these measures overstate the problem of poverty in America as well as the progress of government programs in combating it.

RACHEL SHEFFIELD: The purpose of government welfare shouldn't be to simply artificially boost living standards but to actually help individuals. To help them become self-sufficient.

HORSLEY: The official poverty measure is not going away. It's still used to calculate eligibility for numerous government programs, including subsidies in the new health care law.

The mother of that official line, Mollie Orshansky, died in 2006. Decades ago, she said the sole purpose of such yardsticks is to wipe out what she called the scourge of poverty, even if we don't agree on how to measure it.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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