RealClearMarkets: Why Our Poverty Measure Misleads Robert Samuelson
... Despite poverty's messiness, we've tended to measure progress against it by a single statistic, the federal poverty line. It was originally designed in the early 1960s by Mollie Orshansky, an analyst at the Social Security Administration, and became part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. She took the Agriculture Department's estimated cost for a bare-bones -- but adequate -- diet and multiplied it by three. That figure is adjusted annually for inflation. In 2008, the poverty threshold was $21,834 for a four-member family with two children under 18.
By this measure, we haven't made much progress. Except for recessions, when the poverty rate can rise to 15 percent, it has stayed in a narrow range for decades. In 2007 -- the peak of the last business cycle -- the poverty rate was 12.5 percent; one out of eight Americans was "poor." In 1969, another business cycle peak, the poverty rate was 12.1 percent. But the apparent lack of progress is misleading for two reasons.
First, it ignores immigration, which has increased reported poverty. Many immigrants are poor and low-skilled. From 1989 to 2007, about three-quarters of the increase in the poverty population occurred among Hispanics -- mostly immigrants, their children and grandchildren. The poverty rate for blacks fell during this period, though it was still much too high (24.5 percent in 2007). Poverty "experts" don't dwell on immigration, because it implies that more restrictive policies might reduce U.S. poverty.
Second, the poor's material well-being has improved. The official poverty measure obscures this by counting only pre-tax cash income and ignoring other sources of support. These include the earned-income tax credit (a rebate to low-income workers), food stamps, health insurance (Medicaid), and housing and energy subsidies. Spending by poor households from all sources may be double their reported income, reports a study by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they've participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones. ...
... The "supplemental measure" ties the poverty threshold to what the poorest third of Americans spend on food, housing, clothes and utilities. The actual threshold -- not yet calculated -- will almost certainly be higher than today's poverty line. Moreover, the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty -- but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn't decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but "poverty" stays stuck.
What produces this outcome is a different view of poverty. The present concept is an absolute one: The poverty threshold reflects the amount estimated to meet basic needs. By contrast, the supplemental measure embraces a relative notion of poverty: People are automatically poor if they're a given distance from the top, even if their incomes are increasing. The idea is that they suffer psychological deprivation by being far outside the mainstream. The math of this relative definition makes it hard for people at the bottom ever to escape "poverty."
The new indicator is a "propaganda device" to promote income redistribution by showing that poverty is stubborn or increasing, says the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector. ...