Back to School Series

Measuring poverty shows that government programs are working

Every year when the Census Bureau releases its annual updates on the economic well-being of the nation and our state, we turn to a measure that has largely been rejected by most people as reflective of what it takes to get by today.

The poverty measure, as typically lifted up in media reports, is calculated based on the food choices of families living in the 1950s.  There are various efforts to get a more accurate sense of what it actually takes to makes end meet and avoid hardship—doubling the figure is one way that gets you to the definition of low-income in most circles, and another is developing market-based measures on the costs of the full range of goods a household needs, like the Living Income Standard.

The US Census Bureau and academic researchers have developed another tool—the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This measure includes the government programs that seek to serve low-income people that aren’t accounted for in the official poverty measure. In the U.S., this measure shows that 13.9 percent lived in poverty and that the two most significant programs working to move people out of poverty were Social Security and Refundable Tax Credits.

North Carolina’s supplemental poverty measure is lower than the official poverty rate reported for the state, showing that these programs are delivering a greater benefit to our state’s economy. The supplemental poverty measure for North Carolina is 13.8 percent, which is a 1.5 percentage point difference from the official measure.

The supplemental poverty measure makes all too clear the importance of programs that make sure people can eat, have a place to sleep that is safe and affordable, and otherwise help to bridge the gap when earnings fall short or work is not available or possible.

As Vox reported, researchers from Columbia University found, when looking at the Supplemental Poverty Measure over time, that poverty fell by nearly 40 percent since the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, as the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities reported yesterday with their findings of the powerful pathway out of poverty built by key public programs, it is these very programs that are at risk in the current House budget.

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