This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Last week Robert J. Samuelson wrote an ill-conceived column in The Washington Post, which among other
things said the Obama administration's development of a new poverty
measurement was part of a "political agenda" designed to increase the
number of people in this country who are counted as poor.
Because Samuelson is syndicated, this column also appeared in
newspapers across the country. It cannot be allowed to go unchallenged
by those of us who have been working on this issue for some time and
have actual facts on our side to support the need for a modernized
approach to calculate who is poor in this country. As Sen. Daniel
Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to their own
opinions, but not their own facts."
First a little background: Earlier this year the Census Bureau
announced plans to develop a supplemental poverty measure (SPM) to
address the widely acknowledged flaws in the current measure. That
measure has not been revised since the early 1960s when non-cash
benefits like food stamps and housing subsidies did not exist and
expenses like child care and out-of-pocket medical costs were far lower.
The supplemental measure, which will be released in fall 2011
alongside the current official measure, includes all of these factors
when calculating who is considered poor.
Samuelson takes this simple and much-needed revision in a data
calculation and grinds it into an unrecognizable pulp of inaccuracies
He begins his diatribe with a stunningly out-of-touch portrayal of
poverty as a "mind-set that fosters self-defeating behavior - bad work
habits, family breakdown, out-of-wedlock births and addictions." He
never acknowledges that the great majority of low-income people remain
mired in poverty because there are simply not enough jobs in this
country that pay family-supporting wages. Even before the recession in
2006, more than a quarter of jobs paid less than a poverty-level wage.
Samuelson seems to think that the current measure, with a few minor
tweaks, is just fine despite being based on spending patterns typical of
the 1950s, when food accounted for one-third of the average family's
expenses - compared with one-seventh today. He claims falsely that that
the supplemental poverty measure "embraces a relative notion of
poverty: People are poor if they're a relative distance from the top,
even if their incomes are increasing." In fact, the SPM is not a
relative measure of poverty in the sense Samuelson has in mind. It is
true that the poverty threshold will adjust when the costs of basic
necessities (food, shelter, clothing) rise or fall, but it won't change
just because the nation as a whole grows wealthier.
Samuelson suggests that circumstances for the nation's poor have
improved even though the poverty rate has barely budged during the past
40 years. He bases this, in part, on the specious argument that more
poor people today have microwave ovens, air conditioning and cell
phones. In reality, these have all become relatively low cost items
that can no longer be viewed as luxuries. Wal-Mart sells microwaves for
$19.95; in warm climates air conditioning is a common feature in even
subsidized housing; and cell phones are often a far cheaper alternative
to land lines for low-income families whose living arrangements change
In arguing that the poor's material well-being has improved,
Samuelson does make one important point. He accurately notes that the
current poverty measure counts only pre-tax income and ignores other
sources of support that were not in place when the measure was adopted.
These include the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income workers, food
stamps, Medicaid and housing and energy subsidies. Samuelson is, in
fact, supporting a key component of the supplemental poverty measure -
and one that if calculated accurately could push families above the
Samuelson's contention that the supplemental poverty measure is part
of a political agenda designed to increase the poverty rate and "promote
income redistribution" could not be further from the truth. The SPM is
based on the recommendations of a non-partisan panel and is modeled on
the alternative poverty measure adopted in New York City by Mayor
Michael Bloomberg. It is not known if the poverty rate will increase
under the supplemental measure. And even if the rate rose it would not
change eligibility for public benefits, which will still be based on the
official poverty measure.
For decades, the poverty measure has been wrangled over, studied and
criticized. But no administration until now has had the courage to do
something about it, recognizing that a new measure could result in a
higher poverty rate under their watch. Contrary to what Samuelson
believes, changing the poverty measure may actually be bad politics.
But it is unquestionably good policy.
Posted by Mike
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