How to Reframe the Poverty Debate

The policy discussions we're currently having about poverty will not lead to much progress.

As a new set of federal policymakers gets ready to address the current economic crisis, academics and advocates are proposing changes to the official measure of poverty.

Unfortunately, as long as we keep talking about "poverty", this is much ado about almost nothing.

Earlier this year, a similar discussion ensued in Congress. At the national level, that new proposal would move the bar ever so slightly, so that being poor equals household income of less than $21,818 for two adults with two children, up from the current $20,444.

To be sure, a new measure would likely be a better reflection of the rate of material deprivation in our nation than the current one. And Brookings' Rebecca Blank proposes a very thoughtful approach.

Why is this even necessary?

Today's measure still uses a formula based on 1950s household expenditures -- before housing and transportation costs went up and two-income households became the requirement, causing average child care expenses to soar. In contrast, the new measure would allow for regional reflection of differences in the cost of living and would count some federally-funded employment benefits as income for the first time.

Yet, it's important to note that we aren't really accomplishing what we desire with this goal -- even with a more accurate formula. This is especially true since this high-level reconsideration of the formula is occurring at a time when there are numerous calls for a national goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years.

What's wrong with expending a whole lot of energy on this discussion?

First, it's only a proposal to measure income and not the other resources that communities need for a strong economy and full participation in our democracy and civil society. The proposal isn't about quality education or clean air or reasonable housing costs or access to health care or reducing prejudice ... and so on. (Although, notably, Blank's long-term proposal goes much further.)

Second, a if we want a measure of income, a relative measure would be a much more useful test of how well our nation is doing at making sure all residents can contribute to a strong society. As higher income earners do better, low-wage workers must see increases in income relative to the higher earners -- otherwise poverty increases. As one leading newspaper said of a new relative measure:

"Certainly, the relative poverty measure is hard to budge. Yet, when all the research shows that it is how one's income compares to the average that drives health, happiness and opportunity, the target must be the right one."

Third, while we do need a better standard for measuring progress as a nation on income deprivation, we're not likely to succeed in achieving the goal of better policy outcomes if we insist on maintaining a subsistence standard. Indeed, if the goal is based on any measure of "poverty" as it is currently understood in this country -- material deprivation blamed on immoral or ill-considered personal choices -- we should not expect much policy progress on efforts to strengthen our economy.

At The Mobility Agenda, we're engaged in a conversation about developing a goal that is more consistent with widely supported policy proposals -- which tend to go way beyond income deprivation and include paid time off at work, worker voices at the table for establishing workplace policy, fair wages, and access to affordable health insurance.

When we put the poverty headline over these policy options, policymakers face real resistance created by the widely-held public beliefs about causes of poverty. We cannot change these beliefs by adopting a goal to end or reduce poverty -- no matter which formula we use to define the term.

Of course, we should adopt a more current measure of income deprivation, but only as part of larger goals related to well-being and inclusion.

Unfortunately, we're not doing so well on the policy front as it is, and changing the poverty formula will not have much of an impact on this reality. Progress on policy requires a different goal and new measures for testing our progress toward that goal. Moreover, we'll need to have a different conversation altogether -- one that isn't about "poverty".

Margy Waller served as a domestic adviser in the Clinton-Gore White House. She is based in Washington, DC.
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