WETZSTEIN: Poverty measure outdated

The new Census Bureau poverty numbers are out, and the 2007 rate of 12.5 percent is not statistically different from 2006.

Psst, here’s the news. The U.S. poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much for 40 years. It’s ranged from 11 percent to 15 percent.

I think this is a huge problem, but probably not for the reasons you think.

I am worried that we are poised to trap another generation of Americans into “poverty fatigue.”

By “fatigue,” I am referring to folks in poverty as well as folks who would like to help them climb out. It’s not good for either group to feel like there’s no hope.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You can’t solve a problem until you first learn to measure it.”

Well, many noteworthy economists say we do a lousy job of assessing poverty in this country.

“It is not too strong a statement to say that, 43 years after they were developed, the poverty thresholds are nonsensical numbers,” economist Rebecca Blank said in a recent paper.

The poverty measure is “absolutely rotten,” Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins said during an Aug. 26 briefing.

The poverty calculation stinks, experts say, because it uses an obsolete formula. It doesn’t factor in taxes or modern expenses, nor does it count generous noncash “aid” given to poor people, like housing subsidies, health care subsidies or food stamps.

If poverty were measured using a new, reasonable formula, it would probably drop to 8 percent, maybe lower, says Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Am I saying the U.S. poor aren’t as numerous - or as poor - as we think? In fact, I am, and it’s not an opinion.

When federal researchers look at what poor Americans earn and what they spend each year, the numbers don’t square. In 2005, for instance, households with $9,676 in income somehow spent $19,120.

Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector likes to catalog the living conditions of America’s poor, as reported in government surveys. Typically, their homes include air conditioning, a microwave oven, color television(s), cable or satellite hookup, DVD player and washer and dryer, Mr. Rector says. Poor Americans are also likely to own at least one car and tell the government they have adequate food and money for essential needs.

Of course, details like these don’t look good on fundraising appeals, so maybe you haven’t seen them before.

At the Brookings event last week, I heard a prediction that the next Congress will create a poverty measure that bears some resemblance to reality. Modern expenses (e.g., high gasoline and housing costs) are likely to be factored in, as well as powerful antipoverty benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

My goal here is to confirm that 40 years of colossal financial investments in the “war on poverty,” plus countless man-hours in volunteerism, have paid off.

Now if we can just get the official numbers to reflect reality and give us a true picture of how people are doing - and where problems persist - we can refocus and redouble our efforts.

Cutting U.S. poverty in half in 10 years is doable. We just have to listen to Mr. Moynihan.

c Cheryl Wetzstein’s On the Family column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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