The national poverty rate is one of the most widely used indicators of the nation’s economic success – but the rate masks how many people are actually living in poverty. Now, The Trump Administration is publicly weighing reducing the cost-of-living adjustments to make way for an even lower poverty line. This is a flagrant attempt to ignore the hardships of families already living below the poverty line, and an attempt to erase the reality of millions of Americans working full-time and still suffering. If the government is going to rely on poverty statistics to gauge how many Americans are struggling, there is a dire need for a better system.
The system for gathering poverty data started in the 1960’s, with a simple formula of calculating the amount of money it takes to buy a basic amount of food and multiplying it by three. It’s no surprise, then, that a system created over 56 years ago neglects to capture how many families are struggling in the present moment. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Census, the poverty rate fell to 11.8 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2001. At surface level, this is a good gain. However, when you look deeper, the current poverty level severely undercounts thousands of families living in poverty.
The out-dated poverty-line metric only determines poverty by the cost of food, not taking into account other expensive living costs like rent, transportation, and other necessities.
Times have changed a lot since 1963. Modern households now only spend about one-eighth of their income on food, while in reality, housing and child care pose the biggest financial restraints to families living in America. The majority of families who make less than $30,000 – around the salary of a worker making $15 an hour – are spending half of their income on housing alone. These are not families living in relative financial security. These are working people constantly living one paycheck away from a financial disaster – and this is on a $15 an hour wage, which means that the 40 million Americans currently earning less than that are in an even more precarious situation.
Here’s the thing: the federal government is using markers that make the economy look better than it actually is.
As the costs of living necessities continue to rise, the poverty level is not reflective of the growing costs of living in America. As of 2019, the federal poverty line for a household of four is an annual income of $25,750 and $10,380 for a single person. If a person makes below these measurements, they are considered poor. In 2019, families are spending between $600-$1500 on rent alone. This is basic math – these numbers don’t square with the reality of living anywhere in America.
And when we say anywhere in America, we mean it. Even though the cost of living varies significantly around the country, government poverty lines are the same, regardless of location. For example, the cost of living for someone in Utica, New York and New York City are extremely different, but poverty-line metrics do not take these fundamental regional differences into account. Using the same poverty level for a family living in the Midwest and in Washington simply ignores the vast regional disparities in wealth that are continuing to widen. These families live completely different realities when it comes to the cost of living, but are treated exactly the same under our federal measurements.
The poverty line frankly doesn’t tell the full story of how many Americans live in poverty. Federal assistance programs that thousands rely on like Head Start, Medicaid, the National School Lunch program, and Children’s health insurance program do not rely on poverty line measures to give assistance. The number of people who rely on these assistance programs is high, yet unemployment is low. This is because the government is inflating numbers and relying on an inaccurate system to measure poverty.
The government’s decision to cast a blind eye to these disparities and use a deeply flawed metric system is an intentional move to make the economy look better than it actually is. The reality is that if the economy was as strong as they claim, workers wouldn’t be striking so much, economic disparities wouldn’t be so high, and so many Americans wouldn’t have to rely on government assistance just to get by.
The government must face the facts: when working families are struggling, so is the economy. Undercounting families afflicted by poverty prevents the government from identifying the real number of struggling families in the country, and it prevents us from taking any meaningful action to make their lives better.