Democracy is a process that relies quite a bit on semantics and cleverly-worded definitions. I believe it was a wizened Jedi who once said that “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Someone a little more real once told me that we’re “Entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.”
Nowhere in politics is the semantic divide more evident than in the world of poverty and welfare programs. No two politicians seem able to agree on the definition of poverty, or on where the poverty line should be drawn in the sand. It should come as no surprise, then, that we’re almost totally unprepared to tackle the poverty problem itself.
The official 2013 poverty statistics were released recently, and it was good news for a change: the poverty rate in the United States fell from 15% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2013: not a large drop, but it was also the only drop we’ve seen since 2006.
But there’s a problem with these numbers: they have nothing at all to do with modern reality. In fact, our very definition of poverty (that is, the poverty line) is based on data that’s quite literally decades old.
What Is Poverty?
The Social Security Administration came up with our official poverty metrics way back in 1963. The number they came up with was equivalent to “three times the subsistence food budget” for a given family. In 2008, then-Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank explained their methodology:
“The subsistence food budget for a family of four was based on the Economy Food Plan developed within the USDA in 1961 using data from the 1955 Household Consumption Survey. It was described as the amount needed for ‘temporary or emergency use when funds are low.’ The multiplier of 3 was used because the average family of three or more spent one-third of their after-tax income on food in the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey. If the average family spent one-third of its income on food, then three times the subsistence food budget provided an estimated poverty threshold. This calculation was done for a family of 4, and so-called ‘equivalence scales’ were used to estimate how much was needed by smaller or larger families.
“The current poverty line is this number, calculated in 1963 and based on 1955 data, updated by the Consumer Price Index in each year since.”
What are the actual numbers? According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the current poverty threshold for a single person is $11,770. When you factor in a second member of the household, that number rises to an only slightly less paltry $15,930.
So let’s think about this for just a second. Basically, our current definition of poverty is based on analysis that’s half a century old, as well as on consumption data that’s even older. And we’ve only scaled these metrics according to inflation. Can you see the problem here?
Recognizing There’s a Problem
Thankfully, the Census Bureau has acknowledged the longstanding problems with our current definitions of poverty. As a result, it’s released a newer metric that goes by the name “Supplemental Poverty Measure.” The SPM sets the poverty line at the 33rd percentile for food, clothing, shelter, and utilities expenditures. It’s also based on the “average family” consisting of two parents and two children. It’s not been without its detractors, however; the SPM includes a number of non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, housing assistance, and more. Still, it’s better than the less accurate alternative.
But the problem here remains: so long as we’re unable to agree on a definition of poverty, or on how to measure it most effectively, or on what constitutes “income,” we cannot hope to actually reign in this problem. We need one definition, and we need to be able to adjust it as national conditions change.
For a glimpse into the convoluted world of poverty calculations, check out this poverty calculator, developed by Matt Bruenig. In about five minutes or so, it should give you a pretty good idea of what America’s working poor are really up against.
The truth is, if you’re living in poverty, you probably don’t need some stodgy bureaucrat to tell you so. Poverty is an all-encompassing state that becomes the source of almost constant worry. It changes you as a person—and how could it not, when money is the only thing on your mind?
This country needs to take a big step back and decide for once and for all that we actually care what happens to our most vulnerable citizens. This country was built on certain ideals, including the notion that the least among us is every bit as deserving of respect and dignity as the most successful Americans. There’s no price tag on human dignity.
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