On Monday, November 23, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival organized caravans across 30 states in remembrance of family and loved ones who have died in this pandemic. In testimony after testimony, we heard the profound losses that have been suffered over these past several months and how poverty contributed to this suffering. It is not a coincidence that poor and low-income people are on the frontlines of this pandemic. Rather, it reflects economic and political decisions to not invest in the health and economic well-being of the poor.

The prescription for the cure rests with an accurate diagnosis of the disease. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One factor contributing to these failures is how we have maintained a definition and measure of poverty does not capture the true extent of poverty today. The official poverty measure (OPM) is based on income and food expense data from 1955, but it has not been updated in meaningful ways since that time. It does not account for changes to household income and expenses relative to the costs of food — for example, the costs of housing, childcare, transportation, health care, utilities, etc. —  or increasing household debt burdens.

This month’s policy briefing features a conversation on the poverty measure with Shawn Fremstad, Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and Anne Price, President of the Insight Center. They remind us of the real consequences to how we define and measure poverty. Government programs across numerous departments set their eligibility standards and receive allocations based on this measure.1This includes food security programs like WIC, SNAP, and school breakfast and lunch programs; rural housing assistance, public housing, and emergency shelters; community services and social services block grants; Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; energy programs for low-income families and weatherization; educational programs like Head Start and support for elementary, secondary and Indian and tribal schools; tax payer clinics; youth jobs programs and more. A measure that is too low results in eligibility standards that leave out significant numbers of people who are in need of such programs and it also means these programs are not funded to meet that need. When poverty numbers persist or even rise, it is easy to make the case that these programs or people who are still poor failed, rather than seeing these under-investments as the real failures.

The poverty measure also influences our public perception of poverty. As Anne reminds us, poverty is not something that only happens to a small group of people, but an experience facing many people at different times in our lives. Being able to talk about and measure the life course of poverty opens up a discussion about how our society and economy are structured to ensure we can meet our needs from the beginning to the end of our lives. It also begins to unpack the relationship between poverty, income, wealth and debt.   

There are significant efforts underway by the Poor People’s Campaign, CEPR, Insight, Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social PolicyGeorgetown’s Center on Poverty and InequalityInstitute for Policy StudiesChildren’s Defense FundCenter on Budget and Policy PrioritiesCoalition on Human Needs and others to change the poverty measure. Legislation has been introduced to move in this direction. In the weeks and months ahead, it will be important to set a new standard on poverty so the Biden-Harris Administration and the 117th Congress can take up their promise and commitment to provide for the general welfare. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, “The prescription for the cure rests with an accurate diagnosis of the disease.”  

Taking Poverty Seriously: A Conversation on the Measure and Definition of Poverty

Shailly Gupta Barnes: So much of our work at the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign is to push back against the prevailing narratives about poverty. Why is the poverty measure so important to this narrative change work?   
Anne Price: I’ve worked on a lot of poverty related issues for the past 30 years: around welfare reform at the time of the 1996 Welfare Reform legislation, hunger in New York City, Medicaid budgets and as a Community Development Block Grant administrator.
We know the poverty measure is woefully inadequate, especially given the wide geographic range of these costs in the country. The Insight Center has actually been looking at alternatives to poverty measures since the mid-1990s. I would call them “cost of living” measures: they give a true estimate of the “cost of living,” based on federal data and sometimes state data that outlines what it takes to support different family types, for example a single parent with an infant and a school-aged child would have different costs of living than a two-parent household with no children. A single parent with two young children would need to make $98,000 a year to cover the basics — food, housing, taxes, that kind of thing — in the Bay Area, but that is many times more than what the federal poverty line is set at.
The measure that we use is so antiquated, not just in how it calculates a household budget and what’s left out, but also because it doesn’t reflect real, contemporary lived experience, different household types or regional differences. This means that we aren’t accurately classifying poverty and who is poor today. There are a lot more people who are poor, but living above the poverty line. 

This means that we aren’t accurately classifying poverty and who is poor today. There are a lot more people who are poor, but living above the poverty line.

Shawn Fremstad: Part of why I think this whole conversation matters is that this isn’t just a question of wonky technicalities or statistics, but because the debate about poverty and economic security is siloed, the question of how we define and measure poverty is also shifted into this smaller space. It almost feels like the driving force is how low of a minimum we can establish.
Before I came to Washington D.C., I was working in legal services. I represented low-income people and there is a real disconnect between how we thought about the needs of people and who they were and how we measure and define those needs in the poverty measure. We look at poverty in a very technical way and focusing on technical interventions, like inflation measures or making incremental adjustments of tenths of a percentage point to change who we think of as poor.
I don’t even know if “needs” is the right word, but we should be talking about what it takes to live in a dignified way. When Dr. Martin Luther King called for a basic income, he was really thinking about poverty and what it takes to live — not just meet your very basic needs — but to live and fully participate in our society. That is how we should be designing poverty programs, but we’ve really just lost that way of thinking about poverty. It’s been reduced to this measurement.
The story is that we’ve had a measure that got set in the 60s, maybe it was okay back then, but it was never updated in a meaningful way over time. The Johnson administration didn’t want to update it, because they were worried it would make the “War on Poverty” not look effective enough and then the Nixon administration wanted to really freeze that measure in place. They made the current poverty line an official statistic and we’ve stuck with that for 57 years, only updating it for changes in inflation and not to keep pace with changes in costs of living and how we live.
I think some of the fear of having a poverty measure that reflects social participation and basic needs might seem too big or too much to ask for. If we take it seriously that in the Bay Area you need $98,000 to meet your costs of living, that goes really far beyond the tweaks that we’re currently willing to make. This is despite the fact that the public is way beyond that thinking: most Americans think it takes a lot more to not be poor in this country than either the official poverty line or supplemental poverty line says. They have this intuitive feel for what you need to get by.
SGB: What does it say about our society that we define poverty so low?

When Dr. Martin Luther King called for a basic income, he was really thinking about poverty and what it takes to live — not just meet your very basic needs — but to live and fully participate in our society.

AP: I think it’s very clear why we have such a low measure: it reflects a deeply held American belief about deservingness and about handouts. When we really look at this as a narrative and begin to understand this worldview, the narrative is that if you’re poor, you are unable to make it for yourself and that there is something fundamentally wrong with you as a person. There is nothing structural about this narrative. The most conservative side of the belief is that you will actually make someone more morally corrupt by giving them government handouts — that if you give people something that they don’t deserve, that in and of itself corrupts people and their moral standing.
We see versions of this narrative among liberals as well. Whether you’re a policymaker or whether the conversation is about a specific program like TANF or SNAP, the sense is that we don’t want to discourage people from working by giving them handouts. This dates back to the English “poor laws” and reflects the belief that there are groups of people who are lazy, there are groups of people who are “takers.” And this has been racialized and genderized in our society.
Within this narrative, there are also assumptions about how we see someone coming into full personhood. If you think about the transition from childhood to adolescence, adolescents are not completely responsible or reliable. In order to be considered an adult, you have to make it on your own. This is a deeply held belief. And so, the discussion about the $600 a week in unemployment insurance was about how it was too much, how it’s making people not go back to work — and whether we are in a pandemic or not, there is this notion that we should not give people more than what we think they deserve. If you were to think about an adolescent, you wouldn’t be helping that person develop into the adult they have the potential to be by doing that. 
This is how people see the world. And even if it’s not our view, it’s a worldview that we have to overcome. We have to recognize that talking about poverty — who are the poor and why people are poor and what we can do about poverty — all of that pushes up against these narratives and assumptions that are commonly held about deservingness.
And it’s an extremely difficult policy fight to be able to see groups of people as deserving. If we take the idea of childcare subsidies, we can agree that moms should be able to go to work and have childcare. Yet, in places like Mississippi, they’ll refuse to draw down all of resources they’re getting for childcare subsidies from the federal government, because they don’t really think that black women are deserving of them or they don’t trust these women to use those resources in the right way.
All of has an impact on our political will. The recent headline about 8 million people “slipping” into poverty is not benign. It makes it seem like poverty is natural, like the wind is blowing and there’s a blue sky and 8 million more people became poor. If we can convince Americans that poverty is natural, then we won’t build the will to have a better measure or definition of poverty, because if it’s natural, it’s meant to happen to you. You are supposed to be poor — and it’s actually more of an accident that you’re not.
We’ve done interviews with families and some of them said, “Well, my kid just has to be poor. That’s just the way life. They’ve got to be poor, they’ve got to go work and try to get over that.” This is an ideological barrier that we have faced for years and years and it has not shifted dramatically.

SGB: One of the other implications is that, if poverty is natural or an accident, then you only need temporary solutions for it. For instance, you’ve had this pandemic unemployment insurance for a while now, you should be able to recover on your own now.
AP: And this is not just an issue with conservatives. It is widely held, and it’s held across political affiliations, even across race, although people of color tend to have more of a structural lens. And our inability to admit or confront these assumptions has done a great deal of damage. Even when we’ve had a Democratic majority in Congress and in government, they will still cut programs because of these narrative and beliefs.
We also just don’t think about poverty over the course of a lifetime — how you can be middle class one moment and fall into despair the next moment, from a job loss or an illness or a divorce, any life event that happens all the time. Most Americans will have periods of time over the course of their lives when they’re really struggling. I was thinking about my mom, who was a teacher, but she got into an accident and fell in her classroom. She had to go on disability and it took a long time to do that and so she also had to go on food stamps. Even after I had worked on this issue for many, many years — and saying how people should not be ashamed about being on these programs and needing assistance — I remember that feeling of shame that I felt for her.
This reality has not translated into our thinking about poverty, that a lot of people become poor for some periods of time. Instead, poverty is most commonly seen as a condition that happens to certain people for their whole lives. And it’s certain kinds of people. And it’s something that they did wrong themselves. So we have a long way to go there.
SF: A few years ago, I had really soured on poverty frames in general. Letting the poverty line deteriorate, as has happened over the last 50 years, has legitimized a neoliberal system where we can say, “look how much we have reduced poverty, with market-based approaches and deregulation.” And obviously that narrative doesn’t take into account declining wages and student debt, so we can pat ourselves on the back, because we let a lot of people get food stamps during the recession. It’s all so wrong.
One of the really important things about the 140 million number that the Poor People’s Campaign uses is that it shows that, whatever line you draw, the people below that line aren’t all that different from the people right above it. And there is a coalition of people coming together across that line — some of whom are really destitute and others who are living precariously, but can see what’s in front of them. Instead of getting sliced and diced, the 140 million number allows people to see themselves in the same boat and build coalitions across class, race, gender and across this poverty line that keeps them apart.

Instead of getting sliced and diced, the 140 million number allows people to see themselves in the same boat and build coalitions across class, race, gender and across this poverty line that keeps them apart.

SGB: I’m wondering if you have thoughts on the other side of the equation, on how we define and measure wealth and the relationship between poverty, low-income and low-wealth. There are at least two parts to this. First, the relationship between poverty and wealth and how the concentration of wealth, resources and power by some (or in fact very few) facilitates the expansion of poverty and economic insecurity by the many, including the disintegration of our social welfare programs. And second, how many more people and households are not just “low-income,” but “low-wealth”: their incomes are low, because they are earning low wages that don’t meet the rising costs of living, but they also don’t have access to any sources of wealth — housing, savings, land, investments, etc. — and are encumbered by higher debt burdens that further extract any income or wealth they may have.
SF: Yes, poverty is pretty much exclusively associated with income and we should aim for more comprehensive measures that incorporate wealth and debt. This would change what the story looks like, particularly along race and ethnicity. You can have a white family with the same income as a black family, but with more assets and less debt than the black family.
AP: Yes, I agree with that, Shawn. Wealth just gives us another picture of our nation’s history. It also flips the script on so many things that we believe in, like how education will lead to higher levels of wealth. Because of the way that wealth is passed down from generation to generation, a black person without a college degree may have less wealth (and more debt) than a white person who dropped out of high school.
And when we talk about wealth, we really have to talk about “the plunder”, where that wealth comes from and we can see that so clearly when we look at debt mechanisms. In California, we worked to eliminate criminal legal fees. These are imposed by the government on top of fines. Just getting rid of those fees eliminated $16 billion of debt in California. People who were freed of those payments now have $800 more in their pockets, every month, just from eliminating that debt. Even conservative counties in California were saying these debt mechanisms were not working and supporting this effort.
I think this approach presents opportunities to have different conversations to interpret poverty from the angle of “the plunder” (wealth) and of debt. It’s a way for people to see how absurd these systems are and maybe that’s much clearer than just talking about how unjust TANF or some other government program is.
SGB: That’s really amazing. Imagine if many of the debts we hold were released and what would be possible with that extra $800 a month (or more) in everyone’s pocket. The economist Michael Hudson has written about how “debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” The question is who gets left carrying that debt burden: will we revisit the 2008 mortgage crisis or will we make the banks write off those debts?
AP: You know, we need to really dig into the structure of our economy and the way it operates. There have been billions of dollars poured into a neoliberal narrative that prioritizes markets, austerity and limited government. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of deep investments in that narrative and there are economic models playing out these narratives. Payday lending, overdraft fees — these are economic and financial models that do that and these debts are created to extract wealth. These models are created to produce profit. They’re created because someone can’t fill their budget shortfall, so they’ll put it on a group of people who don’t have any political power. People don’t always understand wealth, but they do understand debt and outsized corporate power. If we could tie poverty and debt together, we might be able to move away from individualism and the narrative around personal responsibility.

Poverty is pretty much exclusively associated with income and we should aim for more comprehensive measures that incorporate wealth and debt. This would change what the story looks like, particularly along race and ethnicity.

SGB: This economy is really failing the vast majority of us, but these narratives help to hold it in place. I read recently that if we defined and measured global poverty to be living on less than $10 a day, 87% of the world’s population would be poor. This is the vast majority of the world’s population. And if we’re looking at the costs of living, and debt, then more than 140 million people in this country would be considered poor.
SF: The U.S. really stands out as an exception in terms of how low our poverty line is and how it doesn’t at all look at social or material deprivation. The European Union wide approach looks at both of these factors and they have much higher poverty lines. Their poverty lines are basically set at 60% of the median income. The basic idea is that poverty is not about being desperately poor, but falling too far behind the rest of society. But, here in the U.S., inequality and poverty are talked about as two absolutely separate things and that’s just bananas.
We’re actually one of the few wealthy countries in the world that doesn’t require employers to provide a vacation or childcare allowances or wage protections and some of this gets reflected back in how we measure poverty. For example, Sweden came out with their new poverty numbers — their index has 11 or 12 indicators looking at material deprivation (like can you afford to pay your rent) and also social deprivation (like can you afford to take a vacation). That should be part of our poverty measurement.
This narrative change work around what we are all deserving of is really necessary to give people an alternative way to understand what’s possible.

AP: You’re so right about changing the narrative and it’s extremely hard work, because it’s emergent and no single organization can do it on its own, but we’re not coordinated enough. I just don’t think there’s enough investment in that.
SF: I think this is where the role of movements is really interesting and how movements can bring different sectors and groups together. I’ve been thinking a lot about the welfare state and how it shapes power relationships — there is a lot of focus on building worker power, but a welfare state is part of that landscape, too. Knowing you can get health care through a public option and you don’t have to look for another job, there is something to that relationship that we need to think about more. And maybe actually we don’t think about power enough and how those dynamics shape and influence each other.

SGB: I very much agree with you, Shawn. Our lineage comes out of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and some of the strongest labor organizing in the country, the United Auto Workers out of Detroit. General Baker was a leader in the labor organizing there and Marian Kramer is a longtime leader in the welfare rights organizing and they worked together and were married for a long time. The two of them would make this point about how people would lose their jobs and come right over into the welfare line, bringing together the economic struggle with employers for decent work and the political struggle with the government for strong welfare programs. That was in the 1980s, 1990s — times have changed now, with more people out of work and unable to find work, and therefore more people directly confronting the government rather than the employer. But it begs the question of who we are bringing together and how — what the shape and power of the 140 million is to shift these broader narratives around poverty and wealth and who is deserving of the abundance in our society.