The Common Good

Update an Obsolete Poverty Line

Last week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a study analyzing the effectiveness of our country's safety net programs. For those of us who advocate for these programs -- including food stamps, social security, housing assistance, and others -- this article provided some encouraging news. Together, these programs lifted nearly 31 million people out of poverty in 2005 (the latest year with available and sufficient data).

But the article also gave some discouraging news. Our programs are less effective than they were a decade ago at protecting children and jobless workers living in deep poverty. We clearly still have work to do.

This report was significant for another reason -- it used a new poverty measure based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences. The current poverty measure employed by the federal government is based on food prices and consumption habits from the 1950s. It doesn't account for regional disparities or the rising cost of items like housing. And since it measures only pre-tax cash income, it ignores assistance from anti-poverty programs, making it more difficult to see the effectiveness of these programs over time.

How can we fight poverty if we don't know where it exists or whether our best efforts are actually helping people?

My hometown Congressman, Jim McDermott from Seattle, recently introduced legislation to adopt a new poverty measure similar to the one used in this study. It includes a wider range of spending patterns, takes after-tax income into account, and gives our lawmakers, business sector, and local communities a tool to better understand poverty in our nation. It's not flashy, but it would be incredibly valuable.

At Sojourners we often say that the moral measure of any society is how it treats those whom Jesus called "the least of these." I would add that sometimes we need a good statistical measure to calculate the moral one.

Click here to ask your representative to co-sponsor H.R. 2909, the Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009.

Nate Van Duzer is the policy assistant for Sojourners.

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