Priority Populations

Let the War on the Poverty Line Commence

You’d have to search far and wide to find someone who thinks we do a decent job measuring poverty. Critics from the left argue that it significantly undercounts the poor, thus painting an undeservedly pretty picture about the extent of need in America. Unsurprisingly, conservatives argue vigorously the other way, pointing out that various cash and near-cash benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or food stamps, are ignored when comparing the poor’s income to the Federal government’s poverty thresholds, leading to an inflated count of the poor.

Even social scientists uniformly agree that the way we measure poverty in this country is woefully inadequate. That doesn’t mean there’s widespread agreement on what should be done (though there’s more than you might think). But pretty much everyone who’s taken a serious look at the issue thinks something needs to change.

The issue seems academic, and, in the sense that accurate measurement of social conditions generally falls to social scientists, it is. But there is a lot riding on this metric, both in terms of our understanding the extent of deprivation in our society, and in terms of the provision of social supports, many of which are keyed to the current poverty line.  So why, year after year, do we continue to generate a vitally important measure of the extent of poverty in our nation that is widely regarded as invalid?