Every fall the United States Census Bureau releases its annual reports examining income and poverty in the United States. However, over the last decade a growing consensus has emerged among researchers that the Official Poverty Measurement is outdated and needs to be finally put to rest. The measurement was developed back in 1963 using data from a 1955 household food consumption survey. It’s safe to say that consumption habits have changed quite a bit over the last sixty years. In addition, the only adjustment made for this data is for inflation. What makes this statistic inadequate is the number of income sources that are not included. Medicaid, food stamps, the earned income tax credit, and housing assistance are all missing from this measurement. What this means is that the expansion of any of these programs will fail to impact the official poverty measurement.
Beginning in 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau began publishing the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This measurement includes all cash and non-cash benefits and is no longer tied to six-decade old consumption data. In addition, when comparing states, it takes into account cost-of-living, taxes, and housing costs. This is the main reason why California’s official poverty level is about average nationwide, but its supplemental measurement ranks its poverty highest in the country. If a state has high housing costs, the cost of living will be greater, and ultimately, its poverty threshold will increase as well.
With all of this said, poverty shouldn’t be viewed as just a number. Poverty can be having to work three jobs just to stay afloat; poverty can be the fear of going to the doctor due to the excessive costs of treatment; poverty can be the stress of mountains of debt holding down one’s future, poverty can be a social construct that marginalizes segments of the population, poverty can be living conditions that are contaminated by a hazardous chemical like lead; and poverty can be a lack of support whether through family, community or government.