If you wanted to reduce the number of people defined as being in poverty, without reducing poverty itself, what might you do? You could always mess with the numbers.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a solid report out today showing how a Trump administration proposal would do just that. Authors Arloc Sherman and Paul van de Water examine the administration’s proposed alternative to the way cost-of-living adjustments are made to the official poverty guidelines.
The first problem, of course, is that the official poverty guidelines have almost nothing to do with the cost of living. They are an outdated formula — they are a half-century old while, not surprisingly, families’ spending needs have changed. We have shown this regularly at the Iowa Policy Project with our Cost of Living in Iowa research.
Here is what our report, by Peter Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse, noted last year:
Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline
Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. However, the federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago. The calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food. Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today…. Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.
Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 above shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines. In fact, family supporting income even with public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 1.1 to 3.0 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs. Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two-parent family with one worker.
Because the guidelines do matter in the computation of eligibility for work-support programs, it is essential that they are not eroded further to disadvantage low-income families. As the CBPP authors note, not only is the poverty line itself too low to reflect basic needs, but the annual cost-of-living adjustment, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), also is flawed:
Prices have been rising faster than the CPI-U does for the broad categories of goods and services that dominate poorer households’ spending. The poorest fifth of households devote twice as large a share of spending to rent as the typical household, for example, and the cost of rent rose 31 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 17 percent for the overall CPI-U. In addition, recent studies find that low-income households may face more rapidly rising prices than high-income households even for the same types of goods, possibly because low-income households have fewer choices about where and how to shop.
The Trump plan would make that worse, substituting another cost-adjustment measure that slows the pace of upward adjustments in the poverty guidelines. The plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.
Messing with the numbers is never an answer to identifying the challenges one might address with better public policy. Seriously analyzing the relevant ones is essential.