Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau put out its annual snapshot of income, poverty, and health insurance in the United States—which serves as something of an annual report card on the economic well-being of America’s families.
One of the most significant takeaways was the effectiveness of government relief at keeping people above the federal poverty line last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 53 million more Americans would have been officially poor in 2020 if not for a critical assembly of pandemic-related economic relief measures, from stimulus payments to boosts in jobless benefits, food assistance, medical coverage, and more.
But while it’s always good news to see the enactment of public policies that measurably move the needle on poverty and hardship, a growing number of antipoverty researchers and advocates are raising a fundamental question: What good are these kinds of data if the way the United States defines poverty doesn’t bear any resemblance to the cost of a basic standard of living in the nation today? Likewise, when policymakers and elected officials commit to cutting poverty—or better, ending poverty—what are our leaders accountable to if the nation’s official definition of poverty amounts to just a fraction of what human dignity and economic stability require?
So, to pull back the curtain on how the United States measures poverty, the problems with the official poverty measure, and the push to reform U.S. poverty measurement, Rebecca sat down with three colleagues and friends who know a ton about measuring poverty to talk about how we can do better and why it matters so much:
Shawn Fremstad, senior fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research, CEPR, and author of a recent report for TCF, “The Defining Down of Economic Deprivation: Why We Need to Reset the Poverty Line”; Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the Poor People’s Campaign and the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, which is committed to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor; and David Brady, professor, School of Public Policy, University of California-Riverside and a research professor at the WZB Berlin Sociadmvl Science Center—and author of another report in the same TCF series, “American Poverty Should Be Measured Relative to the Prevailing Standards of Our Time.” For more on all this:
Dig into Shawn’s report on why the U.S. poverty line is too damn low: “The Defining Down of Economic Deprivation: Why We Need to Reset the Poverty Line.” For more on the case for shifting to a relative poverty measure, check out David’s report: “American Poverty Should Be Measured Relative to the Prevailing Standards of Our Time.” And here’s lots more about the Poor People’s Campaign’s demands and why they’re challenging the OPM.