The Politics of the Poverty Line Revisited, Pt. I

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DrP's picture
Joined: 01/01/2008
The Politics of the Poverty Line Revisited, Pt. I

186 A little more than a year ago, I wrote about the Census Bureau's effort to redraw the poverty line and the political clashes it might cause. Now the Bureau has worked out the kinks in their new formula and plans to reassess poverty statistics.

Great timing, no? As thousands of Americans protest economic inequality, and presidential hopefuls pander to rival classes for votes, this new wrinkle in the debate promises to stir the pot politically. Perhaps inadvertently, then, the Census Bureau has ensured that poverty will be a campaign issue in 2012.

What it hasn't done is offer any meaningful way out of the problem. As part of academia I support the Bureau's efforts to study the problem. Yet as a poor American I'm not sure I care about statistics. I'd prefer change.

According to the New York Times, poverty experts contend that American poverty is not as bleak as other studies suggest. While poverty is on the rise, they argue, the numbers derived by the Census Bureau are too high. In September, for example, the Bureau reported that 9.7 million more Americans were poor since 2006. Poverty experts claim the real number is closer to 4.5 million. Critics of the Bureau's data also contend that child poverty is not on the rise, since government programs help parents meet their kids' needs.  

These are serious challenges to the Census Bureau's findings. Given the significance of the current economic crisis, why isn't the Bureau getting its facts straight? The reason for the misinformation, experts claim, is an obsolete poverty measure, which only looks at cash income. As one scholar wrote, “The official measure no longer corresponds to reality.”

The Census Bureau concedes that the poverty measure needs serious revision. Here the Bureau and its critics agree: In order to accurately quantify poverty in America, the formula it uses must include federal aid, work expenses, the cost of living, and taxes -- all in addition to income.

To the Bureau's credit, they've been working on a "Supplemental Poverty Measure" (SPM) for quite some time. Among other things, this new formula accounts for cash and non-cash income, various expenses per household, and geographic differences in the cost of living. Integrating these variables, they claim, will produce a more accurate analysis of poverty in America. 

On Monday, the Bureau will release a poverty report that utilizes the SPM to re-examine the rise in American poverty. No one expects that the Bureau will report a decline in the number of poor Americans, but poverty figures will be more statistically modest than previously recorded.

Two questions worth considering at this point are: 1. What will this mean in the political sphere? and 2. Does this get us any closer to solving the problem of poverty?


Steve Peraza, Ph.D.

A. Paige V.
A. Paige V.'s picture
Joined: 08/28/2011
Re: The Politics of the Poverty Line Revisited, Pt. I

To me it seems that although the new poverty report will take more factors into account when calculating poverty levels amongst Americans, it won’t get us any closer to solving the poverty issue. It will be easier to point out individual factors driving poverty from the SPM-supplemented report- be it tax-related, cost-of-living-related or something else- but this doesn’t mean that politicians addressing the issue of poverty in election campaigns will interpret the information in the same way. Statistics are malleable, and I foresee politicians and government members manipulating report numbers to support their own endeavors- be it cutting or increasing taxes, passing job-creation bills, or something else- instead of using them to demonstrate the need for change in our current economic system. The fact remains that our socio-economic system does not represent or meet the financial needs of the average citizen. The newest report on poverty by the Census Bureau may be more accurate than previous ones, however there is a gap that needs to be overcome between having the knowledge that something isn't right and taking the necessary steps to reverse that trend.