Recalculating Poverty

What is poverty? It is probable that you and I may differ on the details, but I would think that we would both define it as lacking sufficient money to provide the food, water and shelter which are essential for life. I realize that we use constructs such as “abject poverty” or “extreme poverty” to describe those who are in such dire need that their very lives are in peril through exposure, malnutrition and disease, but is not poverty an extreme?

There are those who suffer from true poverty–even here in the United States. The question is, how many? The US Census Bureau is trying to figure that out, but in the process of doing so is adjusting the arbitrary formula which has been used previously. Some folks are upset, thinking that it is wrong to recalculate some folks out of poverty. Others think that the new calculation better reflects reality.

I think both the old and the new calculation ignore the facts. The majority of those who live in poverty, as defined in the United States, are far wealthier–in terms of ownership of things, access to food, medical care, etc than the poverty stricken in Bhutan, for example.

The final portion of this article on the question of the recalculation grabbed my attention:

Yet quibbling over how to fine-tune the poverty rate misses the central point that economic stress is enveloping ever greater numbers of Americans, says Duke University economics professor William Darity.

“There is no exact way of measuring poverty,” he says in an e-mail. “The measures are contingent on how we conceive of and define poverty. Efforts to develop more refined measures have been dominated by researchers who intentionally want to provide estimates that reduce the magnitude of poverty.”

“For the Census Bureau to introduce a new measure that shows little change in the incidence of poverty in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression is absurd,” he adds. “What we want to capture is the degree of deprivation and economic stress that is being felt by individuals and families – and certainly that has intensified greatly for the worse during the Great Recession.”

I believe Mr. Darity to be correct when he says that “there is no exact way of measuring poverty.” However, he seems to believe that current measurements are under-reporting poverty because of a built in bias on the part of researchers. To call a measurement “absurd” because he disagrees with it is hardly a scientific approach.

There is little doubt but that more people in this country are suffering “economic stress” than they were three or four years ago. However, it may well be that poverty rates (as commonly defined in our country) have not gone up during this recession. Those two statements are not necessarily incompatible.

I think we would all be better served by reserving the use of the term “poverty” for those individuals who struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads from one day to the next. Perhaps if we did so, we would benefit from knowing just how blessed most of us really are.

2 thoughts on “Recalculating Poverty

  1. Interesting that he slides from poverty to economic distress. I’ve faced economic stress lots of times. I’ve never been poor.

    Economic stress happens when my accustomed resources are reduced, and the magnitutde of the change can intensify the stress. Somebody going from $500,000/year to $200,000/year is dealing with a lot of economic stress. He’s not in poverty. Somebody who has to forego movies and dining out, or maybe cancelling his cable TV because his hours are cut back is someone facing economic stress, but not someone in poverty.

    And the Duke guy is wrong. The bureaucratic and academic pressure is to INCREASE the number of people classified as poor. It’s a lot easier getting a grant to study or work on or care for poor people if you can claim there are lots of ’em and more coming.

    1. You are right, economic stress does not equate to poverty. I think this supports my point that we throw around the poverty word much too quickly these days.

      If we just gave all the poor people the money which we spent on grants to study poor people, perhaps they wouldn’t be poor any more. 🙂 Or maybe we would just reclassify some other group as poor.

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