Reports of declining U.S. poverty don’t tell the whole story

 The official measure is outdated, and doesn’t take important economic realities into account. Are those with incomes slightly above the poverty threshold not “poor people,” as most of us would understand it? — Bill Moyers & Company 

The U.S. government’s official measure of poverty hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years: It’s still based on what it took to feed a family in the 1960s. — National Public Radio

In a 2015 Anti-Poverty Soldier column, I referenced an episode of the 1970s sitcom Good Times while exploring the rising scourge of hunger in America. I would like to use that show again as a starting point in light of the recent news that the recent drop in poverty is the largest such decrease America has seen since 1999.AntiPovertySoldier

Although I am thoroughly pleased to see the poverty rate drop from 14.7% in 2014 to 13.5% in 2015, this decrease still doesn’t tell the whole story. In the Good Times pilot episode “Getting Up the Rent,” which aired in February 1974, the Evans family must come up with $74 to avoid eviction from their apartment.

While each member of the family devises a plan to raise the necessary funds, family matriarch Florida Evans and friend and neighbor Willona Woods make their way to the welfare office and apply for emergency rental assistance. To both their dismay and bewilderment, they find that the five-member Evans household does not qualify for assistance as their annual income of $4,300 is a mere $100 above the eligibility threshold. As is commonplace with most sitcoms, the family still finds a way to make it through the storm, so to speak.

(MGN Online)

Nevertheless, the absurd notion that the Evans family is somehow above the poverty line is far from television fantasy. In truth, such an absurdity is a rather common reality for millions and millions of American families. Sure, the most recent census data might officially state that there were hundreds of thousands of American citizens who rose above the federal poverty line in 2015. Some might suggest, however, that it is not a case of these people no longer being poor, but perhaps just a little “less poor” than before.

As I have noted in this column on numerous occasions, the formula used to calculate poverty in America has not been changed since it was developed in 1964. It fails to take into consideration any number of economic indicators, not to mention cost-of-living variances across the nation.

And while statistics show that the number of Americans below the poverty line has been anywhere between 42 and 46 million during the past several years, many experts contend that another 100 million or more are classified as economically insecure and one small financial mishap from poverty themselves.

Consider that in 1974, when Good Times debuted, the federal poverty line for a non-farm residence of three people was $3,936. Today, 42 years later, the poverty threshold for a family of three is $20,160. Yet, as we know from previous columns, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator suggests that an annual income of $20,000 is approximately only one-third of what many three-person households need to achieve income security right here in Minnesota.

MIT’s living wage model, which measures the geographic differences in what it costs for each household in America to meet its basic needs, reveals that the full-time living wage for a single parent with two children living in the Twin Cities is $29.37 hourly, the equivalent of $71,766 annually. By this measure, a single-parent household of three people in the metro earning $25,000 or $35,000 or even $40,000 annually is not technically counted among the poor, yet in reality they are tens of thousands of dollars short in income each year to meet all of their basic needs.

America cannot continue to neglect million and millions of its citizens who essentially live in poverty whether or not they are counted within its ranks. This nation must develop new tools to adequately measure poverty and income security so that we can meet the basic needs of all of our citizens while providing the programs and services necessary to help them chart a course toward financial independence.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.