Monday, May 31, 2010

Supplemental Poverty Measure Announced and Questioned

Under a "Supplemental Poverty Measure" announced by the Commerce Department, the government is augmenting, but not replacing, the formula that determines how many people are considered to be in poverty, taking into account a wider range of expenses and income to try to create a truer portrait of which Americans are financially fragile.

The old definition, developed in the mid-1960s using data from a decade earlier, was based on the cost of food and a family's cash income. The new one, acknowledging that food has become a smaller share of poor families' costs, will also consider expenses such as housing, utilities, child care and medical treatment. In gauging people's resources, the new method will include financial help from housing and food subsidies, in addition to money from jobs and cash assistance programs.

Additional observations:

There are people out there--in Wisconsin and New York City--working to create a similar supplemental poverty measure using the American Community Survey (ACS)--a survey with a much bigger sample size that would allow local level reporting.

This new measure, whatever its limitations, represents a rich addition to our statistical infrastructure.
To paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The administration is defining poverty up. It's legitimate to debate how much we should aid the poor or try to reduce economic inequality. But the debate should not be skewed by misleading statistics that not one American in 100,000 could possibly understand. Government statistics should strive for political neutrality. This one fails.

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