How Poor is Poor

As a part of Miami New Times’ “We’re Number One!” tongue-in-cheek report celebrating the city’s distinction as poorest in the nation, Rebecca Wakefield reveals how outdated our federal poverty guidelines are, and how the poverty picture may be worse than we realize.

In 1965 the Census Bureau began using a simple method it formulated for measuring American poverty. By taking a family’s barebones food costs and multiplying it by three, the result became ‘the poverty line,’ a calculation that remains the same today.

In recent years many economists, sociologists, and public-policy experts have urged the government to reevaluate the poverty line calculation based on numerous changes in American lifestyles over the past few decades.

Though adjusted for inflation, the formula does not account for factors like growth of single-parent homes, more women in the workforce, changes in food consumption, or even variation in cost of living by region (“Uncle Sam thinks a dollar goes as far in New York City as it does in Fargo, North Dakota”).

While bureaucrats at the Census Bureau deny their number-crunching is anything but hard and fast calculations, the poverty line has distinctly political outcomes. One of its most important functions is the role it plays in public assistance programs, which use it to define eligibility for aid. If changed, many more would qualify for assistance, requiring additional funds for the struggling families and individuals who now are not technically considered “poor”.
–Erica Sagrans
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For the second in the two-part “We’re Number One!” report, Go there>>
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