Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

A Better Poverty Measure Shows Us the Path to Ending Hunger

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As anyone who has dieted before can tell you, tracking how much you eat and exercise is vital for measuring success. They could also tell you that it wouldn’t make sense to only track exercise, but ignore that entire cake you ate last weekend, or only count workouts at the gym, but not at the track. Yet, this is how the government measures poverty. The official poverty line ignores income from government assistance programs. It also doesn’t recognize that some expenses such as medical and housing costs have risen disproportionately in the last 50 years. Clearly this is problematic!

This month, the Census Bureau released the new supplemental poverty measure, which address some of those problems. According to the new measure, 49.1 million Americans lived in poverty in 2010, compared to 46.6 million under the official measure. That’s a difference of 2.5 million people, or the entire population of New Mexico.

Todd Post, senior editor at Bread for the World Institute breaks down the new measure’s details on the Institute Notes blog. Most notably, this new measure tracks how federal programs help lift Americans out of poverty. For example, we can now say that if the federal safety net didn’t exist, more than one in four Americans would live in poverty. Right now, it’s less than one in six. The school lunch program alone prevented 600,000 children from slipping into poverty. Having this new measure of success helps us advocate on behalf of vulnerable families.

According to the supplemental poverty measure, some of the most effective programs in 2010 were the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Using the new census data, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act strengthened these programs further.

Program Number of people lifted out of poverty without ARRA People lifted above the poverty line because of the improved benefits in ARRA.
SNAP 3.1 million 4.4 million
EITC 5.6 million 6.3 million
CTC 1.5 million 2.6 million

However, these programs are now being threatened. One recent amendment proposed in the Senate would have eliminated the extra boost families on SNAP got in 2009. Additionally, the congressional Super Committee is looking into reforming the tax code. The Super Committee could easily eliminate or roll back the EITC or CTC, which are already facing cuts at the end of 2012.

Just as you know that exercise and a healthy diet are important to lose weight, we know these programs are helping families out of poverty. The new supplemental poverty measure shows they are working effectively. Now is not the time to cut these programs. We must ask Congress to create a circle of protection around programs for poor and hungry people.

Ben-d'avanzoBen D'Avanzo is the Mimi Meehan Fellow at Bread for the World.



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