Scholars (not to mention the authorities at The West Wing) have long agreed that the standard U.S. measure of poverty under-reports its existence, but developing a new consensus poverty measure has proved impossible. (The issue is so political that a California state legislative staff member shuddered at the very word when the Nonprofiteer raised the issue with her in the late 90s: “Even calling it ‘poverty’ is a liberal thing to do. We prefer to talk about ‘families.’”) An alternative poverty measure developed in 1995 has failed to secure widespread acceptance, for reasons which can be guessed at: if it increases the number of people considered to be living in poverty, it will cost the government more money. If it doesn’t, it will squeeze social service agencies even more than they’re already being squeezed. The lobbies aren’t equivalent, by any means, but there’s enough weight on each side to paralyze any effort to redo the analysis.
Into this breach leap the scholars whose effort to redefine poverty in the United States has just been published by Issue Lab. The Nonprofiteer doesn’t have the scholarly chops to assess the new measure; she simply wants to draw the attention of those who do to the fact that someone is taking this seriously. As the economy declines, more of us will slide into whatever is defined as poverty. The good news is, maybe that will make it more politically palatable to describe it in terms that reflect Americans’ ordinary understanding of what’s involved.