Measuring Poverty

By Rosemary Du Mont 7-24-2008

In January of 1964, President Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty in America." In response, the Census Bureau created a methodology for establishing an "official poverty line," determined the number of people whose incomes fell below the line, and calculated the poverty rate. The formula for determining poverty was based on the assumption that food costs consume one-third of a family's after-tax income -- an assumption that is still used today, though food now constitutes closer to a seventh of family income. The resulting calculation means that a family of four is considered poor if total income is $21,200 or less. Except for adjustments to reflect inflation, this calculation has remained unchanged for more than 25 years.

At a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, experts testified that the food measure fails to consider other necessities of contemporary life, such as housing, transportation, health care, child care, and other expenses that have become essentials of modern life. They called on Congress to modernize its method for calculating poverty. One expert at the hearing stated: "If we want to solve the poverty challenge, step one is to get our heads around the true scope, dimension, and dynamics of the problem."

Both political candidates for president have made poverty part of their political agenda. Sen. McCain promised to make the eradication of poverty a top administration priority in his April 2008 statement. Sen. Obama co-sponsored the Global Poverty Act, which calls on the president to develop a comprehensive agenda to cut extreme global poverty in half by 2015. He has also endorsed the need for a new poverty measure that more accurately reflects the costs of living and the economic pressures on American families.

Whatever your political point of view, a key issue to consider in any election is the issue of poverty. Sojourners is using the '08 election cycle to focus specifically on the issue of poverty. Poor people play a central role in the parables told by Jesus. As people of faith, we must not forget the poor in our midst.

Rosemary Du MontRosemary Du Mont is a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing pilot project in Ohio, which works on the Vote Out Poverty Campaign. She lives in Cleveland.

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