50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, the US continues to struggle in the fight against poverty. However, recent legislative decisions would not lean towards alleviating poverty for the 15% + of Americans living below the poverty line today. With food stamp surplus monies cut in November, and Unemployment Benefits ending for 1.3 million Americans next month, times are hard and it doesn’t seem as if there will be relief anytime soon.
“Without the panoply of government benefits — like food stamps, subsidized school lunches and the earned-income tax credit, which provides extra money to household heads earning low wages — the nation’s poverty rate last year would have reached almost 31 percent, up from 25 percent in 1967, according to the research at Columbia.”
The way that we socially define poverty changes as society changes. If we were to compare ourselves now to families living in the 1960s- we’d be very wealthy indeed. However, the formula for the “poverty threshold” has not changed since 1963 as stated in a recent article by the Wall Street Journal.
This formula assumes that the cost of food will make up 1/3 of a family’s expenses. That is not at all true today, when food costs are an average of 1/5 of a family’s expenses and housing costs are creeping over 50%.
As the Wall Street Journal mentions:
“Today [the poverty threshold], it falls short. It fails to account for noncash benefits such as food stamps; for changing expenditure patterns that have shifted the poor’s burden from food to medical expenses and housing; and for regional variation that makes a dollar go further in the rural South than, say, in New York.”
The threshold is updated annually to account for inflation- but that is the only change made to the formula in over 50 years.
Just about everyone agrees that the formula is outdated and does not reflect an appropriate measure of poverty. But finding a solution that appeases bipartisan legislators is difficult. The cost of raising the poverty line to a number that adequately reflects the state of poverty in the US would increase the total number of persons eligible for government assistance by 1% (i.e.the total number of persons in poverty would be 16.1%, up from the 15% quoted above).
What are the long term effects of hiding the number of poor in this country behind an outdated formula, and what will it mean for our country?
Rachel Lendzion obtained her MSW from the University of Michigan where she studied Community Organizing and Nonprofit Management. She is strongly interested in the intersection of technology and social change. Her background includes work with transitional aged youth and persons without stable living conditions. She hopes to forward her career through nonprofit development and marketing. You can learn more on her website: www.RachelLendzion.com For regular posts on the use of technology and social work, follow her on Twitter.