The Poor Measures of Poverty

We need to reevaluate poverty metrics in America. Currently, several different government agencies and departments have distinct definitions of poverty and the needs of those impoverished. The definitions contradict each other and need to be resolved in order for policies to be more effective. 

The Census Bureau sets one poverty standard. Their metric assumes that two things determine poverty: age and income. The CB uses income before taxes to determine thresholds in which a household is deemed above or below the poverty line. That number does not include income from capital gains, savings, inheritance, or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps). The CB’s metrics do not vary by geographic location—those living in poverty in Albuquerque, New Mexico are indistinguishable from those living in San Francisco, California.

The CB poverty thresholds are also distinct in how the organization uses age as a poverty prerequisite. The poverty threshold for a household of two 65 year olds is $1,467 lower than a household of two 64 year olds. Under the CB’s charts, having more dependents under 18 year old raises the bar that deems a family impoverished. The CB determined that a household of three, including one income earner over the age of 18 and two residents under 18 years old, needs to earn less than $18,123 to be in poverty, regardless any other factors. Add another individual under 18 years old to that household and the bar rises to $22,891. If a family’s total income is less than the listed threshold, then that household (and every individual in it) is considered in poverty.

Under the CB’s standards, tens of millions of Americans live in poverty. For the past two decades, the CB has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in below the poverty line. In 2010, they reported that a shocking one in seven Americans were impoverished. 

Their metrics led to a variety of misconceptions about poverty in America and made it easy for institutions like the Heritage Foundation to mock current measures of poverty. In a 2011 study named “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” the authors found that the typical poor household, as defined by the government, has “a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR” and that in a typical ‘impoverished’ family’s kitchen there is a “refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave... clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker”. These households seem hardly destitute.

Down the street from the Census Bureau, the Department of Health and Human Services uses a completely different system of metrics. A household of three (one income earner over the age of 18 and two under 18) living in Washington D.C. must collect less than $19,790 in order to be below the line. Add one more person and the poverty line rises to $23,850. 

The Dept. of HHS does not take age into consideration when determining poverty, but it does take into account location. For the Dept. of HHS, there are three places that matter when determining poverty: Hawaii, Alaska and everywhere else. The poverty line in both Alaska and Hawaii is significantly higher than the ‘everywhere else’ category. Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program use the Dept. of HHS metrics to determine eligibility. Cash public assistance programs, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program and Supplemental Security Income, and the Earned Income Tax Credit program do not.

To further complicate the system of standards, individual cities and states also set their own metrics for defining poverty. The fact of the matter is that poverty is not a line nor should it be treated as such. Mismatched metrics and other “qualifiers” such as disability status and military service, perpetuate the failures of welfare programs to ‘”fight the War on Poverty”. Our bizarre system of determining need is often abused as a result of its inability to determine what is need and who is needy. Eligibility for welfare should be tailored narrowly. Measuring need should be specific. What are we trying to measure? Need of what? Food? A job? Money? Healthcare? Education? Debt? Lack of home weatherization? There should be no discrepancy or haphazardness in defining something so serious as poverty.