Disclaimer: Not all the authors of the research papers and conference presentations are affiliated with BLS. This information is provided for your convenience and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of BLS.

Research Experimental Poverty Thresholds

Since 1995, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been conducting research on the development of experimental expenditure-based poverty thresholds. The early work was based on recommendations of the 1995 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, (Citro and Michael 1995). More recently, the Interagency Technical Working Group (ITWG) provided a framework for a second set of poverty thresholds as part of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The ITWGs recommendations are outlined in the document "Observations from the Interagency Technical Working Group on Developing a Supplemental Poverty Measure" (PDF).

Both the NAS and ITWG documents refer to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) as the basis for these new expenditure-based poverty thresholds. The documents also note that BLS is responsible for conducting research on expenditure-based poverty thresholds, and for providing these thresholds to the U.S. Census Bureau for use in producing experimental poverty statistics. The ITWG acknowledged that the BLS had produced the NAS thresholds in the past and expected that the BLS would continue to play this role for the SPM.

Within the BLS, the Division of Price and Index Number Research (DPINR) conducts all expenditure-based poverty threshold research. Support regarding the CE data is provided, as needed, by staff within the Division of Consumer Expenditure Surveys. DPINR research is conducted in consultation and cooperation with U.S. Census Bureau researchers.

The BLS-DPINR research experimental poverty thresholds are presented with a caveat: what appears on this BLS web page does not reflect the rigors of production quality thresholds or related statistics. For such thresholds to be produced, a broader BLS endeavor would need to be created that coordinates the development of improvements in, and the production and dissemination of, expenditure-based SPM thresholds. This effort would include: research economists to devise and test suggested improvements in the thresholds and share this research with the economics and statistics profession at large, as well as the general public; IT staff to design, code, test, and provide diagnotic statistics; statistical methods staff to develop measures of data and statistical quality; and economists to analyze the data, produce the thresholds and related statistics, and disseminate the thresholds to the public. As part of this effort, improvements in the CE Survey would need to be introduced to better capture information to meet the needs of the SPM such as those related to the receipt of in-kind benefits, and to accelerate to early August the delivery of the thresholds to the Census Bureau to support the September release data of the Census Bureau income and poverty report. The FY 2016 Presidents Budget includes funds to create such a program at BLS and to produce production quality SPM thresholds.

On this web page, recently produced research experimental expenditure-based poverty thresholds are presented along with papers and presentations related to these. Much of the research was conducted by BLS in cooperation with U.S. Census Bureau staff and other academic researchers. Again, as noted above, the thresholds developed and described in the research papers and conference presentations are not produced using standard BLS production procedures.

The BLS website hosts the research experimental SPM poverty thresholds (see below), while the U.S. Census Bureau website hosts the research experimental NAS poverty thresholds (XLS).

Background

The official poverty measure of the United States was first developed in the early 1960s and adopted as "official" in 1969. The official poverty threshold was determined to be the dollar value of a minimum adequate diet times three. The multiplier of three was used because 1955 Food Consumption Survey data showed that food expenditures accounted for one-third of after-tax income for the average family with children. An annual threshold of about $3,100 for a family with two adults and two children was set as the standard of needs for 1963, and has been fixed in inflation-adjusted terms since then. The U.S. Census Bureau is responsible for publishing official annual poverty thresholds, rates, and other statistics. The most recent official poverty statistics were released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2014.

The NAS recommendations provide the framework for a definition of the SPM. However, research over the years has suggested modifications to the NAS recommendations; the modifications are discussed in detail in the ITWG document. The SPM is not intended to replace the official poverty measure but is to be considered a work in progress, with the expectation that there will be improvements to it over time. Changes in the SPM are to be decided upon in a process led by research economists, survey methodologists, and statisticians within the U.S. Census Bureau in consultation with BLS and with other appropriate data agencies and outside experts, and will be based on solid analytical evidence.

Research Experimental Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) Thresholds

Research Experimental SPM thresholds are based on consumer unit spending for food, clothing, shelter and utilities (FCSU), and a multiplier to account for other basic goods and services, like those for household supplies, personal care, and non-work related transportation. For each threshold year, five years of quarterly U.S. Consumer Expenditure Interview Survey data are used; expenditures are updated to annual threshold year dollars using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U).

Research Experimental SPM thresholds are based on a range centered on the 33rd percentile of FCSU expenditures for the estimation sample of consumer unites (CUs). The NAS-based thresholds were based on the median of FCSU expenditures. Also, unlike the earlier NAS-based thresholds that were based on spending by families with two adults and two children, the SPM estimation sample is composed of CUs with two children and any number of adults. Equivalence scales are used to convert the estimation sample FCSU expenditures to those of reference consumer units composed of two adults and two children.

A three-parameter equivalence scale, proposed by Betson (1996), is used to adjust FCSU expenditure for each consumer unit in the estimation sample. The parameters allow for differing needs of adults and children and for economies of scale for consumption within the consumer unit. A distinguishing feature of the three-parameter equivalence scale is the different adjustment for single parents; no adjustment for single parents was included in the two-parameter scale proposed by the NAS Panel. The three-parameter equivalence scale has been used in the productions of the NAS and SPM thresholds in the past (Garner 2010). Directly below, we present the three-parameter equivalence scale that we apply to the estimation sample for the production of the research experimental SPM thresholds:

     Single adults with children scale = (1 + a + (K-1))f
     Multiple adults with children scale = (A + K)f

        where

           a = parameter to account for the needs of the first child,
            = parameter to account for the needs of subsequent children,
           f = parameter to account for economies of scale within the consumer unit,
           A = number of adults within the consumer unit, and
           K = numer of children within the consumer unit

The parameters a, , and f were estimated by Betson to fit the cost of children literature and when rounded were selected to be 0.80, 0.50, and 0.70, respectively.

Separate research experimental SPM thresholds are produced for owners with mortgages, owners without mortgages, and renters. The research experimental SPM housing tenure thresholds are produced using the equation below.

        SPM Thresholdh = 1.2 * FCSU E - (S + U) E + (S + U) h

            h   refers to one of three housing tenure groups:
                 Owners with mortgages
                 Owners without mortgages, or
                 Renters.

       1.2   = multiplier used to account for expenditures for other basic goods and services, like those for household supplies, personal care, and non-work related transportation.

       E   refers to the entire estimation sample, within the 30th to 36th percentile range of FCSU expenditures, with FCSU expenditures converted to those for consumer units with two adults and two children without distinction by housing tenure.

      FCSU, S, and U  refer to the means of the sum of expenditures for food, clothing, shelter and utilities, and the shelter and utilities portions of FCSU, respectively, for the estimation of sample CUs within the 30th to 36th percentile range of FCSU expenditures.

To test for a significant change in the threshold from the previous year, or to make a comparison between thresholds within a year, one would conduct a Z-test. The test statistics are specified below, for each type of comparison.

First, to test for the statistical difference in a threshold from year to year (e.g., for the SPM for renters), simply divide the change in the threshold from the previous year by the standard error of the year-to-year difference that is listed for the current threshold year.

Z Renters , 2013-2012 = (SPM Renters , 2013 - SPM Renters , 2012 ) / Standard error Renters , 2013-2012

For a statistical comparison of thresholds within a year (e.g., for renters compared to owners without mortgages), simply divide the difference in the two thresholds within the year by the standard error of the difference between the two housing tenure groups that is listed for the current threshold year.

Z Renters compared to Owners without mortgages , 2013 =

(SPM Renters , 2013 - SPM Owner without mortgages , 2013 ) / Standard error Renters compared to Owners without mortgages , 2013

Research Experimental SPM thresholds for 2009-2010 were first posted to the BLS website in table format in November 2011. Thresholds for 2005-2008 were added shortly thereafter. Ever since, the time series has been supplemented by an additional year?'s threshold each September. SPU thresholds are released by the BLS after the CE data are released to the public.

These research experimental SPM thresholds and associated standard errors can be found through the links below. Also available are the expenditure shares of each of the components of the thresholds.

  • Research Experimental SPM Poverty Thresholds (XLSX)

  • Standard Errors (XLSX)

  • Expenditure Shares (XLSX)

Research papers

  • The Supplemental Poverty Measure: A Joint Project between the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF)
    Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. June 8, 2012.

  • Supplemental Poverty Measure Thresholds: Imputing School Lunch and WIC Benefits to the Consumer Expenditure Survey Using Current Population Survey (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charles Hokayem, Census Bureau. July 2012.

  • Supplemental Poverty Measure Thresholds: Imputing Noncash Benefits to the Consumer Expenditure Survey Using Current Population Survey-Parts I and II (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charles Hokayem, Census Bureau. September 2011.

  • The Supplemental Poverty Measure: Examining the Incidence and Depth of Poverty in the U.S. Taking Account of Taxes and Transfers (PDF)
    Kathleen Short, Census Bureau. June 2011.

  • Supplemental Poverty Measure Thresholds: Laying the Foundation (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010.

  • Setting and Updating Modern Poverty Thresholds (PDF)
    BLS Working Papers. March 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Betson, University of Notre Dame.

  • Housing and Poverty Thresholds: Different Potions for Different Notions (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Betson, University of Notre Dame. 2010.

  • Note on Standard Errors and Other Relevant Statistics of Experimental Poverty Thresholds Produced at the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 2006 to 2008 (PDF)
    BLS Working Papers. March 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Identifying the Poor: Poverty Measurement for the U.S. from 1996 to 2005 (PDF)
    The Review of income and wealth, Volume 56, Issue 2, pages 237-258, June 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

  • A Note on the Movement in Median FCSU Expenditures from 2006 to 2007 (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2009.

  • Reconciling User Costs and Rental Equivalence: Evidence from the US Consumer Expenditure Survey (PDF 1.1 MB)
    Thesia I. Garner and Randal Verbrugge, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2008.

  • Creating a Consistent Poverty Measure over Time Using NAS Procedures: 1996-2005 (PDF)
    BLS Working Papers. April 2008.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

  • Comparing Approaches to Value Owner-Occupied Housing Using U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey Data (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Uri Kogan, Northwestern University.

  • What Do We Know About the Value of Owner Occupied Housing Services? Rental Equivalence and Other Approaches (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. Uri Kogan, Northwestern University.

  • Developing a New Poverty Line for the USA: Are There Lessons for India? (PDF)
    BLS Working Papers. March 2005.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

  • Personal Assessments of Minimum Income and Expenses: What Do They Tell Us about 'Minimum Living' Thresholds and Equivalence Scales? (PDF)
    BLS Working Papers. March 2005.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

  • The Role of Housing in Developing Poverty Thresholds 1993-2003 (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2005.

  • Experimental poverty measures: accounting for medical expenditures (PDF)
    Monthly Labor Review, Volume 125, No. 8. August 2002.
    Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Owner-Occupied Shelter in Experimental Poverty Measures (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. 2001.

  • Report on Experimental Poverty Measures 1990 to 1997 (PDF)
    Kathleen S. Short and John Iceland, Census Bureau. Richard Bavier, Office of Management and Budget. Thesia I. Garner and Patricia Rozaklis, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Donald J. Hernandez, SUNY at Albany. 2001.

  • Experimental poverty measure for the 1990s (PDF)
    Monthly Labor Review, Volume 121, No. 3. March 1998.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. Stephanie Shipp, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charles Nelson, Census Bureau. Geoffrey Paulin, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • An experimental Consumer Price Index for the poor (PDF)
    Monthly Labor Review, Volume 119, No. 9. September 1996.
    Thesia I. Garner, David S. Johnson, and Mary F. Kokoski, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • "Is Everything Relative?" The Role of Equivalence Scales in Poverty Measurement (PDF)
    David M. Betson, University of Notre Dame.

Conference presentations

  • Supplemental Poverty Measurement Thresholds: Research at the BLS (PDF)
    APDU Annual Conference, Rosslyn, VA. Sep. 17, 2014.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • The Supplemental Poverty Measure Under Alternate Treatments of Medical Out-of-Pocket Expenditures (PDF)
    Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) Meetings, Philadekphia, PA. Jan. 4, 2014.
    Thesia I. Garner and Marisa Gudrais, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

  • Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM): Threshold Issues (PDF)
    Brookings/Census Bureau Meetings on Improved Poverty Measurement, Washington, D.C. Nov. 7, 2011.
    Thesia I. Garner and Marisa Gudrais, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Supplemental Poverty Measure Thresholds: Laying the Foundation (PDF)
    Allied Social Science Association Annual Meetings, Denver, CO. Jan. 8, 2011.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Moving to a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM): Research on Thresholds for 2008 (PDF)
    Southern Economics Association Annual Meeting, Atlanta, GA. Nov 10, 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Housing and Poverty Thresholds: Different Potions for Different Notions (PDF)
    Midwestern Economics Association Annual Meeting, Evanston, IL. Mar 20, 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Betson, University of Notre Dame.

  • Setting and Updating Modern Poverty Thresholds (PDF)
    Annual Meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA), Atlanta, GA. Jan 3, 2010.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. David Betson, University of Notre Dame.

  • Poverty Threshold Alternatives/Choices (PDF 1.6 MB)
    Brookings/Census Bureau Conference on Improved Poverty Measurement. Oct 20, 2009.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • National Academy of Sciences (NAS)-Based Poverty Thresholds: Details of Alternatives and Choices in Specification (PDF)
    Joint Statistical Meetings, Washington, DC. Aug 3, 2009.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Reconciling User Costs and Rental Equivalence: Evidence from the US Consumer Expenditure Survey (PDF)
    Annual Meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, San Francisco, CA. Jan 4, 2009.
    Thesia I. Garner and Randal Verbrugge, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Accounting for Housing Services in Consumption and Income (PDF)
    ASSA-SGE Annual Meetings, New Orleans, LA. Jan 6, 2008.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sylvester Young, International Labour Organization.

  • Comparing Approaches to Value Owner-Occupied Housing Using U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey Data (PDF)
    ASSA-SGE Annual Meetings, Chicago, IL. Jan 7, 2007.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Uri Kogan, Northwestern University.

  • What Do We Know About the Value of Owner-occupied Housing Services? Rental Equivalence and Other Approaches (PDF)
    Annual Meeting of the Southern Economics Association, Charleston, SC. Nov 18, 2006.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. Uri Kogan, Northwestern University.

  • The Role of Housing in Poverty Thresholds: 1993-2003 (PDF)
    Annual Meeting of the Southern Economics Association, Washington, DC. Nov 19, 2005.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Developing Poverty Thresholds (PDF)
    JSM, Social Statistics Section, Minneapolis, MN. Aug 10, 2005.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Incorporating the Value of Owner-Occupied Housing in Poverty Measurement (PDF)
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau. 2004.

  • Owner-Occupied Shelter in Experimental Poverty Measurement with a ?Look? at Inequality and Poverty (PDF)
    Southern Economics Association Conference, Tampa, FL. Nov 18, 2001.
    Thesia I. Garner, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kathleen S. Short, Census Bureau.

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    Last Modified Date: May 4, 2015