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March 1998, Vol. 121, No. 3
Experimental poverty measurement for the 1990s
Thesia I. Garner, Kathleen Short,Stephanie
Shipp, Charles Nelson, and Geoffrey Paulin
last 30 years have seen fundamental social and economic
changes in the United States. Today, there are more
working mothers, families are smaller, there are wider
varieties of goods and services, expectations about what
it takes to meet ones needs are greater than in the
past, and beliefs about what are necessities have
changed. Geographic variations in housing and the
increasing importance of government programs also have
influenced families appraisals of the value of
their disposable incomes.1 With
these and related changes have come questions about
whether the measures and data used to produce various
economic statistics are still meaningful. Among the
measures frequently criticized is that for poverty.
- The most recent comprehensive examination
of poverty measurement in the United States was conducted
by the National Research Council of the National Academy
of Sciences Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance in the
early 1990s. In 1995, this Panel of scholars published
its findings in a report entitled Measuring Poverty: A
New Approach.2 Included
in the report are recommendations for a new poverty
measure, along with examples of ways in which the
recommendations might be implemented. According to the
Panel, any new poverty measure should better reflect
social and economic changes, and should be based on a
level of family economic resources considered necessary
to provide a minimally adequate standard of living,
defined appropriately for the Nation.
- The Panels minimally adequate
standard of living would include a basic needs commodity
bundle (food, clothing, shelter, and utilities), plus a
small additional amount to allow for other needs (such as
household supplies, personal care, and nonwork-related
transportation). Family economic resources would be
defined as the sum of money income from all sources and
near-money benefits from government transfer programs
(such as food stamps and subsidized housing) that could
be used to buy the commodities in the full needs bundle,
less expenses that could not be used to buy these
commodities.3 If a family could not meet its needs for these
commodities with its available economic resources, it
would be considered poor. (See the box on pp. 5355
for a summary of the general recommendations.)
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1 Gordon Fisher refers to such developments as changes in
social processes. He notes that with technological advances and
increases in levels of living, new consumption items are
introduced. With the introduction of new items and more
widespread acceptance and use of these items, the belief about
what are necessities changes. Changes in the way our society is
organized also can contribute to changes in our expectations (for
example, greater dependence on private rather than public
transportation), as can changes in social policy (such as changes
in the minimum quality acceptable for public housing). See Gordon
Fisher, "Relative or AbsoluteA New Light on the
Behavior of Poverty Lines Over Time," Newsletter of the
Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section
of the American Statistical Association, Summer 1996, pp.
2 Connie F. Citro and Robert T. Michael, eds., Measuring
Poverty: A New Approach (Washington,
National Academy Press, 1995).
3 These deductions would include income and payroll
taxes, child care and other work-related expenses, child support
to another household, and out-of-pocket medical care costs. See
Citro and Michael, Measuring Poverty, pp. 45.
Related BLS programs
Labor Force Statistics from the
Current Population Survey
Consumer Expenditure Survey
- Related Monthly
Labor Review articles
- The effect of
working wives on the incidence of poverty. March 1998.
- Working poor, The. September 1997
- Work schedules of low-educated American
women and welfare reform, The. April 1997.
- What does it mean to be poor in America?
- Spending patterns of families receiving
public assistance. April 1996.
- Working and poor in 1990. December 1992.
- Poverty areas and the 'underclass:'
untangling the web. March 1991.
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