New Federal Standard to Measure Poverty in America

Posted July 7, 2008
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Newsrelease supplementalpoverty 2008

Dou­glas W. Nel­son, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, urged Con­gress today to adopt a new mea­sure of pover­ty that will pro­vide a more accu­rate sta­tis­ti­cal por­trait of eco­nom­i­cal­ly strug­gling Americans.

If we want to solve the pover­ty chal­lenge, step one is to get our heads around the true scope, dimen­sion, and dynam­ics of the prob­lem,” Nel­son said in tes­ti­mo­ny pre­sent­ed to the Sub­com­mit­tee on Income Secu­ri­ty and Fam­i­ly Sup­port of the House Ways and Means Committee.

I believe that chang­ing the pover­ty mea­sure should be viewed as part of over­all efforts in this coun­try to hold our­selves and our pol­i­cy mak­ers account­able for hon­est­ly con­fronting the prob­lems faced by those in need – and com­ing up with clear and mea­sur­able respons­es,” Nel­son added.

The sub­com­mit­tee is con­sid­er­ing revis­ing how the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment mea­sures pover­ty in Amer­i­ca. The cur­rent pover­ty mea­sure was craft­ed in the 1960s and many ana­lysts have con­clud­ed that it does not accu­rate­ly por­tray the real costs of liv­ing for low-income fam­i­lies, leav­ing out such key expens­es as trans­porta­tion to work, child care, and state and local taxes.

Nor does it reflect a vari­ety of ben­e­fits, such as food stamps, hous­ing assis­tance, the Earned Income Tax Cred­it and the Child Tax Cred­it, which many low-income fam­i­lies rely on to stay afloat.

Nel­son point­ed out that the Casey Foun­da­tion has long worked to quan­ti­fy the con­di­tions of America’s vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies and chil­dren. Most notably, its KIDS COUNT project uses high-qual­i­ty data to mea­sure the edu­ca­tion­al, social, eco­nom­ic and phys­i­cal well-being of chil­dren in each state. A net­work of state-lev­el projects also pro­vides more detailed, coun­ty-by coun­ty assess­ments of the con­di­tions of children.

In his tes­ti­mo­ny, Nel­son said that oth­er exist­ing efforts to mea­sure child well-being in this coun­try are, like the pover­ty mea­sure­ment, inad­e­quate and out-dat­ed. He called for the cre­ation of a state-lev­el sur­vey of the well-being of chil­dren across the coun­try. Such a sur­vey, which is cur­rent­ly sup­port­ed by leg­is­la­tion in both cham­bers of Con­gress, would pro­vide reli­able, accu­rate data about how chil­dren are doing in a range of areas, includ­ing edu­ca­tion, social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment, health and safe­ty and fam­i­ly well-being.

This infor­ma­tion would help states bet­ter tar­get their scarce resources and more use­ful­ly assess whether child well-being improves when new pro­grams and poli­cies are insti­tut­ed,” Nel­son said.

Cit­ing the grow­ing empha­sis on pover­ty and oppor­tu­ni­ty dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Nel­son said that this is clear­ly the right time to rethink the way we col­lect data about the low­est-income Amer­i­cans. He also not­ed that recent sur­veys have shown grow­ing pub­lic inter­est in efforts to fight pover­ty. In a poll tak­en in ear­ly July by Repub­li­can poll­ster Jim McLaugh­lin for Spot­light on Pover­ty, an ini­tia­tive launched last Octo­ber by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, the Eos Foun­da­tion and oth­er major foun­da­tions, like­ly vot­ers were asked whether they agreed or dis­agreed with the fol­low­ing state­ment: The media has spent an ade­quate amount of time dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign cov­er­ing the issue of how to fight pover­ty in the U.S.” 56 per­cent dis­agreed; 41 per­cent strong­ly disagreed.

More Amer­i­cans want to hear about what their polit­i­cal lead­ers will do to fight pover­ty,” said Nel­son. It is time for all par­ties in this debate to table their dis­agree­ments and come togeth­er around a more cred­i­ble and pol­i­cy rel­e­vant approach to pover­ty measurement.”

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