Yesterday, the Census Bureau released the
Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), an experimental measure of poverty designed
to account for perceived flaws in the official poverty measure. As the
Bureau releases their preliminary findings, Spotlight
has gathered reflections from two experts on each side of the aisle to address
the question: how do the recent Census findings in the SPM affect our
understanding of and response to poverty?
Advisor, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
The Census Bureau’s release of the
Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) makes clear, in a way that the traditional
poverty measure cannot, that federal and state programs significantly reduce
the extent and depth of poverty.
The official measure counts only cash income
and does not include in-kind benefits or tax credits, whereas the SPM captures a
much broader array of safety net programs. The SPM shows that on an ongoing
basis, but especially in response to this recession, the Earned Income Tax
Credit kept approximately six million above the poverty line in 2010, and the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) kept more than
four million above the poverty line. This provides proof that these programs
help protect American families from poverty caused by low pay, job loss,
disability, old age, and other vulnerabilities and misfortune that President Franklin
Roosevelt called the “vicissitudes of life.” Such findings come when many benefits
are under attack, and they serve as a powerful antidote to the myth that this
assistance can be cut without significant harm. Policymakers should take heed
and extend or protect these polices.
By adopting a more meaningful poverty
threshold and a more complete understanding of family resources available for
meeting basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, the SPM also reveals the burden of out-of-pocket healthcare
costs (which pushed approximately ten million people below the poverty line) and
child care and other necessary work expenses in 2010 (which pushed nearly five
million below the poverty line)—factors not considered in the traditional
measure of poverty.
The Clapham Group
In the short time since it
has been released, much has already been written on the Supplemental Poverty
Measure (SPM) and its commendable efforts to gain better and fuller data on
poverty. Yet even the best statistics are only a veiled reflection of reality
and we must guard ourselves against the temptation of valuing what we can
measure instead of trying to measure what we value—normally a much harder task.
So the discussion of the SPM
must not consist purely of technical and statistical soliloquies, but of a
wider discussion on whether the SPM attempts to measure those things we value.
This is vital because how we measure poverty shapes our perception of it and
most importantly how we seek to solve it.
If we measure poverty as
almost exclusively material, our solutions will also likely be exclusively
material and we will measure our compassion by the size of our checks - whether
public or private - rather than the well-being of the recipients. We will be
missing the fact that many times poverty is not just a lack of financial
capital, but a lack of human capital and, just as importantly, social capital.
For example, while the new
data shows the Earned Income Tax Credit might lower the SPM by about two
percent, the data also shows marriage can lower the SPM by as much as 20
percent when compared to a single female household. So a measure of how many
families remain married and intact is as important to poverty as their cost of
clothing or housing.
If we don’t widen our
definition of poverty, we may come to say of the SPM those fateful words Bobby
Kennedy uttered about Gross National Product: “it measures everything in short, except that which
makes life worthwhile.”
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