The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event Report: Measuring Our Progress in Reducing U.S. Poverty

8 April 2011

By Elliot Fox, University of California Los Angeles. SPSSI Spring Intern

On March 29th 2011 representatives from SPSSI Central Office attended an event put on by the Center for American Progress titled, Measuring Our Progress in Reducing U.S. Poverty: Challenges, Benchmarks, and Opportunities for Cross-Agency and Community Collaboration. The keynote speaker for this event was Jim McDermott (D-WA) who discussed current problems facing our society, noting that today one in every four kids is living in poverty, and flaws in the way the poverty level is measured in the US.

McDermott and panelists looked into what is currently being done to help combat poverty in the US. According to Mark Greenberg, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Administration for Children and Families for the US Department of Health and Human Services, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 gave $150 billion to the homeless and vulnerable. And when taking into account health care costs, work costs, tax cuts, and other related expenses, it kept 4.5 million out of poverty.

Currently, the US poverty level is determined by taking the cost of an emergency diet and multiplying that figure by three to arrive at a poverty income threshold. This emergency diet is based on a food plan developed by the US Department of Agriculture, and was to be used for a temporary amount of time or when funds were inadequate. McDermott and other panelists, such as Mark Levitan, Director of Poverty Research for the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity, noted that using only food to determine the poverty level is not an adequate formula.

McDermott and Levitan both suggested that a formula for determining poverty should take into account other needs that take up more of an individual’s income today than they did when the formula for poverty was developed in the 1960s. In the 1960s a household spent about one-third of their income on food, today the average household spends around one-seventh of their income on food. Levitan brought to attention New York City’s new poverty level measure which does include other expenses, such as clothing, shelter, taxes. Since taking these other factors into account New York City was able to implement programs that kept the percentage in poverty in 2009 at 19.9 percent; whereas, without these programs that number would have been 22.6 percent.

The US Census Bureau is currently working on a report that does consider other factors when determining the poverty level, called the Supplement Poverty Measure. However, his measure will not replace the current measure to determine poverty, but rather provide supplemental information on poverty in the US, taking into account things other than food, such as shelter, clothing, and utility costs. This report is to be released in Fall 2011.

Bills that have sought to determine the poverty level by these other standards and not solely on food, such as the Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009, have been introduced in recent Congressional sessions but have failed to become law.

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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin