Exclusive Commentary

Measuring American Poverty Act, by Representative Jim McDermott

- Why I Introduced New Legislation


We are a nation that defines itself by the American Dream, where everyone has a chance to improve their life. But what about the 37 million Americans who are living in poverty today? In my view, too many obstacles stand between them and an opportunity to find footing on even the lowest rung of the economic ladder. We can do something about that and without having to create a new federal program or expand an existing one. All we have to do is measure poverty as it exists in our society today, in the 21st century, and then use the benchmark to help people chart a course out of poverty and toward the American Dream.

The 37 million Americans who live in poverty struggle to pay for the basics like rent, food and energy. More often than not, life is defined as either survival or subsistence, even in poor families where both partners work. Against this backdrop it is understandable that hope itself may be out of reach for many of these people, especially when you look at how we measure poverty. The fact is, we measure poverty today essentially the same way we did almost 50 years ago, and the measurement is unfair and it stunts the federal government’s ability to meet its obligations and lift up the most disadvantaged among us.

This stark reality has motivated many organizations and leaders to work to restore fairness, and I welcome and applaud their involvement. Accurately measuring poverty is one of my top priorities as chairman of the House Ways and Means Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee. At a recent hearing I chaired, a number of experts discussed the issue and its inevitable impact on people. The measure was created in the 1960s before the share of family income devoted to shelter, medical expenses, and transportation rose significantly, and before child care expenses became part of everyday life for American families. There are other problems with the measure, not the least of which is failing to recognize and adjust for geographical differences across America. Does anyone doubt that costs are different in large cities like New York and Los Angles compared to smaller communities?

The bottom line is this: We inaccurately measure the most basic needs of American families living in poverty in the 21st Century, but the National Academy of Sciences proposed a solution over a decade ago and their recommendations have been largely overlooked, until now.

I have introduced H.R. 6941, The Measuring American Poverty Act, to implement a new measurement of poverty based on the NAS recommendations. We would measure poverty based on economic necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter and utilities. And, we would include other benefits some people receive that we don’t count now, as well as make adjustments for geographical differences. With this approach, we would get a fair and accurate measurement of poverty and a yardstick to measure our response. It is a data-driven concept that crosses political and geographic boundaries and has attracted bi-partisan support.

In New York City, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized the shortcomings of the outdated measurement and has already begun to implement the NAS poverty measure to wide acclaim. Mayor Bloomberg, well known and highly regarded for his responsible fiscal policy and brilliant business acumen, is a true leader on this issue, and we ought to build on this momentum to realize a modern poverty measurement across the country.

Actions speak louder than words and no one can doubt that the need is urgent and the time to act is now. When the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for poverty to be cut in half within ten years, I believe that was not a slogan, it was a call to action. As chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, I will work tirelessly for the establishment of a modern poverty measure, because 37 million Americans who live in poverty today deserve an opportunity to realize the American Dream. Let us be their hope and their voice. Please join me in fighting for what’s right.