New Census measure shows good policy reduces poverty

The new measure helps policymakers view the impact of public initiatives to alleviate poverty.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Working-family tax credits and food assistance are among ways public policy lifts millions of Americans out of poverty. At the same time, continued high unemployment rates and low wages have put more and more Americans into poverty.

Those are some of the inescapable conclusions from the Census Bureau’s latest information.

In order to better capture what poverty means and how public programs help (or fail) to alleviate it, the Census Bureau devised a new poverty measure.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) does not replace the official poverty measure, which is used to determine eligibility for many public programs, but provides policymakers with another way of viewing the impact of public programs.

The SPM measures what it costs to maintain a minimal standard of living using average costs of necessities: food, rent, clothing, utilities, etc. In addition, SPM also accounts for the increase in overall well-being individuals experience as a result of public programs. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), among others. It also accounts for the decrease in overall well-being an individual experiences through out-of-pocket medical costs, child care, child support, and other expenses.

Using the SPM, 49 million Americans, or 16 percent experienced poverty in 2010. The official poverty measure shows about 46.6 million or 15.2 percent in poverty. Among seniors, the difference is even more drastic: The official measure found 3.5 million seniors, or 9 percent in poverty in 2010; the SPM found 6.2 million or 15.9 percent in poverty.

Not all the results of the SPM are so grim, however. The SPM finds a lower rate of poverty among children than the official measure, 18.2 percent vs. 22.5 percent. As noted above, this is because the SPM accounts for the increase in income and living standard individuals experience when they benefit from public support programs.

Additionally, the SPM illustrates the effect public programs have on reducing poverty. For instance, SNAP keeps 5.2 million people, including 973,000 children, out of poverty. The EITC prevents about 6 million people, more than 1.1 million of whom are kids, from living in poverty.

On the other hand, medical out-of-pocket expenses, meaning everything from co-pays and deductibles to paying for medical services with cash or through debt, added about 10.1 million, or 3.3 percentage points, to the number of Americans in poverty.

Successful problem-solving requires that first the problem be understood. The Supplemental Poverty Measure is an important new tool for policymakers in alleviating poverty.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Author: iowapolicypoints

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. We focus on tax and busget issues, the Iowa economy, and energy and environmental policy. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, IPP advances effective, accountable and fair government.

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