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Beyond the Poverty Line: Pitfalls in Discussing the Poor

Sandra Killet, a single mother of two in New York City, ostensibly lives in poverty, at least according to most people’s intuitive definition. She is hardly better off with a job than she was without, she cannot afford any means of transportation, and she struggles to afford housing, health care, food, and communication with her children without public assistance. Nevertheless, prior to Michael Bloomberg’s break from using the federal poverty line as a measurement in 2008, she wasn’t considered legally poor. In fact, when Bloomberg signed the bill to adopt modern standards for poverty, 400,000 additional individuals, along with Sandra, were newly considered poor by city standards, instantly increasing the city’s poverty rate by 5 percent. This showcases a serious problem in the way policymakers, federal and local, define and measure poverty. With 5 percent of Americans barely hovering over the federal poverty line, an outdated metric that fails to accurately define the modern costs of living, policymakers should reevaluate the systems used to define poverty and grant relief from it.

The poverty line was engineered in the early 1960s by economist Mollie Orshansky. Over the ensuing decades, the government chose to not make any major changes to it, despite countless committee hearings, reports, and reviews containing refuting statistics. Even to the present day, policymakers have failed to modify the methodology that defines the poverty line, and have only merely adjusted its cutoff for inflation. As a result, the percentage of people under the poverty line relative to the average household income has fallen dramatically. At its creation, the poverty line was set at almost 50 percent of the median income for families of four, but by 2009, the same metric was only 29 percent. Because of cultural changes, price changes, and many other social factors, the poverty line has become an outdated device.

In failing to update the poverty line to meet modern standards, authorities have made the prevalent metric an anachronistic distraction. For example, in the 1960s, households spent an average of one third of their income on food. Today, the average proportion is about a seventh, evincing how the poverty line ignores rising costs of health, education, and other basic needs. Yet the current measure viewed food as the center of how we determine poverty. Consequently, since the ratios have changed so drastically, the poverty line doesn’t consider how much childcare, health care, and countless other needs cost to the modern family, thus falling far short of evaluating a family’s basic necessities. Additionally, the poverty line evaluates pre-tax income and hasn’t been adjusted with new sets of taxes.

Furthermore, the poverty line fails to accurately account for a variety of characteristics that impact the meaning of poverty across the country. For example, the poverty line largely ignores geographical distinctions; the relative position to the poverty does not change, regardless if you live in New York City or Fresno, California, despite enormously different costs of living. Not only does this lump countless people together and ignore the different sets of costs they face, but it also keeps us from understanding other social factors that keep the poor poor. By exclusively looking at income and by ignoring social dynamics such as racism, discrimination, local inequality, and other social, cultural, and environmental facets of wealth, these causes of perpetual poverty are enabled, sustained, and accepted. When governments look at the changing poverty rate and respond with one-size-fits-all solutions, they impede progress with and understanding of poverty.

The poverty line also ignores the depth and nature at which poverty can exist. Between those without income and those at the poverty line, wide differences exist in the nature of their impoverished states. Ignoring these differences among people who are all technically under the poverty line effectively ignores the factors crucial to making effective policy. Households near or at the line typically represent the working poor, which necessitates policies that increase income or reduce taxes. Households towards the bottom of the spectrum often require more jobs-based solutions. The poverty line makes distinguishing these different scenarios difficult. Moreover, this singular method provides little to no insight into the different ways that households may be deprived – some lack access to food, some to health care, and some to housing. Thus, because of the opaqueness of the poverty line, an individual above the poverty line could be unduly denied health-based welfare programs, even though his or her income may go towards other needs besides health.

"When we focus so exclusively on the poverty line as a metric, we ignore a host of incredibly influential factors. Not only does this prevalent rhetoric simplify poverty, but it also perpetuates it. "

Some might see these as nuances, or they might see the poverty line as nothing more than political rhetoric that doesn’t affect policy. But the practical effects of the flawed metric amongst the poor prove the contrary. To be both recognized as poor and aided, one often has to be below the specifically set poverty line. Being above the line often entails ineligibility for a variety of important welfare programs even if you might need them. In the political arena, defining the poverty rate by the line immensely influences discussions about poverty and reforms. As Rebecca Blank writes in the LA Times, “most programs to help the needy would never budge the U.S. poverty rate the way we measure it now.” Even when politicians agree on the need to help the poor, hyper-simplification legitimized by the poverty line measure feeds the cynics of poverty policy. If the government wants to solve a multi-faceted phenomenon, it cannot identify the problems through a single frame.

It might seem as though these faults have gone straight over the heads of policymakers. But the glaring holes in poverty discourse are repeatedly brought to the government’s attention, and ignored time and time again. Committees and agencies have conducted numerous in-depth reviews of the poverty line and its effectiveness. Throughout the seventies and eighties, numerous studies and reviews pointed out its insufficiencies and inconsistencies: no changes were made throughout all of these debates. Past presidents have rarely taken a stance on an issue for the fear that would jeopardize their legacies (changing the poverty line often results in more people being classified as impoverished), whereas Congress can’t seem to push new reform.

After countless failed attempts at reform, the United States finally saw piecemeal action when President Obama managed to squeeze through the “Supplemental Poverty Measure,” which evaluates beyond basic foods costs. However, this does not eliminate the poverty line as a standard from welfare eligibilities, and it disproportionality evaluates housing relative to other important costs. As such, most organizations will still be forced to instead try to work around the line by accepting a certain range of individuals relative to the poverty line. But overall, the nation has yet to replace its long-broken lens.

When we focus so exclusively on the poverty line as a metric, we ignore a host of incredibly influential factors. Not only does this prevalent rhetoric simplify poverty, but it also perpetuates it. Policy discourse dominated by generalizations and narrow-mindedness has kept us arguing over how to frame the issue instead of learning how to better fix the issues. Data on all the important forgotten factors of poverty, such as social factors, alternative living costs, geographical differences, and more, is out there, but we need to collect and employ it if we want to be effective in our targeting of poverty. Many credible scholars and organizations have proposed new plans. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences proposed a new metric in 1995 that would look more at the quality of life of the poor, and would expand its definition to numerous different circumstances. Two congressmen have also proposed the Measuring American Poverty Act that would also better update our current metric. All proposals have recognized a key problem in our approach to poverty: we can’t fight it if we don’t even know what it is.

The United States’ failure to update the way it looks at, discusses, and targets poverty seems strange given the seriousness of the issue. Millions of Americans could qualify as poor but are instead denied help because of a calculation designed in the 1960s. If policymakers wish to effect real change that will improve the lives of people like Sandra Killet, it’s time they go beyond the line.


About the Author

Micah Rosen '19 is concentrating in Political Science and Philosophy. He is a US Staff Writer at BPR.