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Definition of poverty - doesn't eliminate poverty

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When it comes to statistical analysis, there is a given amount of money a family or an individual can make annually before they are defined as being "poor," or living at the poverty level. Many officials are highly unsatisfied with this designation. They point out that the definition is based on a lifestyle older than the space program - and half-a-trillion dollars in spending every year still isn't eliminating poverty.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Even more analysts agree that "poverty line" guidelines will remain in place, as a more accurate measure of who is poor could add millions of Americans to the rolls - something few lawmakers want to occur while they're at the helm.

"People (are) talking about eliminating poverty in this country," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) says, whose proposal to change the measure died in Congress five years ago. "You're not going to eliminate poverty in this country with the definition we have. You can make yourself feel good, but you're not going to eliminate poverty."

The poverty line was the invention of civil servant Mollie Orshansky who worked for the Social Security Administration. Orshansky herself was the daughter of poor Ukrainian immigrants. Totaling up the cost of the cheapest three-meals-a-day plan that the federal government considered nutritionally adequate in 1963, Orshansky formulated the national poverty guidelines.

The Eisenhower administration 10 years previously had calculated that the typical family spent a third of its money on food, so Orshansky multiplied by three.

Social scientists and legislators find measuring poverty that way is not just outdated but simplistic. Among the many faults found in this estimate:

- The federal poverty line - $11,945 in cash income for a single adult, $23,283 for a couple with two kids - is the same whether you are poor in New York, the most expensive city in the United States, or poor in a small town in Nebraska.

- This amount doesn't factor in whether you take transit to work or are hostage to the whims of gas prices. It is the same whether Medicaid helps you with medical expenses or you pay out of pocket. It is the same whether you receive food stamps or pay for child care.

 - It is the same regardless of how poor you are; as someone making a dollar below the poverty line is treated the same is someone making virtually nothing.

"There are better ways to measure," Professor of economics and public policy Robert Haveman at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on poverty says. "Nearly any one of them is a better indicator of true poverty than the one we use."

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