With a drop in the federal poverty level for the third time in as many years, it looks like the United States is trending in the right direction and making strides in the war against poverty. Even so, it isn’t time just yet for celebration.
Earlier this fall, the United States Census Bureau released its Poverty and Income Data, which indicates that the official federal poverty rate fell in 2016 to 12.7 percent from 13.5 percent in 2015, and from 14.8 percent in 2014, and that the percentage of Black Americans living in poverty declined as well. Then, just days later, state and local poverty rates were released, demonstrating a decrease in poverty among New Yorkers, with New York City experiencing a drop from 20 percent in 2015 to 18.9 percent in 2016. Given these downward trends, it appears there’s reason to feel good, as some of our poorest Americans and New York neighbors are faring better, at least according to these measures.
But not so fast! Not when recent surveys indicate that nationwide 40 percent and locally 42 percent of residents are struggling and just getting by. Not when mothers are working two or more jobs, and still can’t afford quality child care for their young children. Not when people aren’t able to get to and from work and school because they don’t have enough money for the bus or subway fare. And not when low-income families cannot afford the escalating costs of living because their wages, while perhaps higher as a result of minimum increases, still just aren’t enough.
The federal poverty measure says that a family of four living anywhere in the United States with an income of just $24,601 a year is not poor. However, New Yorkers can attest that an income anywhere near this level in New York City looks and feels like poverty. In fact, it is estimated that a family of four in New York City needs as much as $98,722 a year to cover household expenses.
The federal poverty measure relies on an outdated formula where the dominant measure is based on the cost of food, which decades ago was the biggest household expense. Today, however, housing costs account for the highest household expense with an average of 33 percent of monthly income going to rent. The federal poverty measure woefully underscores the income required to sustain a household with rent, food, clothing, child care, out of pocket health items, transportation and other basic needs.
To embrace the reductions in federal and local poverty rates without simultaneously acknowledging its flaws as a true measure of how people, and particularly low and middle -income people are faring, perpetuates a false narrative about how much it really costs to care for yourself and your family in many communities across this country. And worse, it provides fodder for those seeking to cut domestic spending for federally funded income support programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Child Care Block Grants.
If we are truly interested in ensuring that people have the resources they need to cover basic living expenses, and that our government owns up to its constitutional responsibility of ensuring “the general welfare of the people”, it’s time to officially adopt the Self-Sufficiency Standard as a more accurate measure. Developed by Dr. Diana Pierce, while Director of the Women and Poverty Project at Wider Opportunities for Women, and utilized in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia, the Self-Sufficiency Standard (the Standard) is a truer measure of the costs of living. It accounts for major budget items with geographically-based costs for housing, child care, food, transportation, healthcare, and taxes, and considers the ages of children and adults and their particular needs. Whereas the federal poverty measure says that a family comprised of one parent and two children with an annual income of $20,420 living anywhere in the United States is not poor, the self-sufficiency standard accounts for cost of living differences from city to city, and finds that a similar family in Chicago needs as much as $65,273 to get by, and as much as $93, 534 in Manhattan to make ends meet.
Ignoring the true costs of living and applying a measurement that results in a misleading picture, at best, and a deliberately false narrative, at worst, of who is struggling in America does little to win the war against poverty. By officially adopting the Self Sufficiency Standard as the truer measure affirms the real-life experiences of millions, and sets the table for policy making and programming that truly can lift the tens of millions of Americans who, while not officially poor, are still facing debilitating financial hardship.