30 Good Minutes on Poverty

I’ve been learning a good bit about my childhood this year as I work on FourFathers, my memoir-ish book about dads. But there’s a lot I’ll never know—both my parents are gone, and they didn’t leave a lot behind. Few keepsakes, few records.

One of the things I’d love to know is: Were we living in poverty?

That may sound like a question that shouldn’t be hard to answer. You’re either poor or you aren’t, right? But when you begin to look closely at American poverty, you find that things get very technical very quickly. Each year, we identify a poverty line—this year, it’s $27,750 for a family of four. If you make one dollar more, you are not, technically speaking, poor. Which means, of course, that a family can be experiencing extreme economic hardship without being counted as “poor” by the United States government.

My family struggled throughout my childhood. We needed a lot of help to get by. I remember brown bags of canned food being dropped off at our door. I remember the revolving threat of our electricity being cut off. I remember Mom opening envelopes with $25 and $50 gifts from extended family and breaking down in tears of momentary relief: Now I can go to the store! I remember years when everything I needed—shoes for school, haircuts, a few bucks for a class field trip—was an impossible burden on my mom and dad.

Around the time I was in third and fourth grade—1983 and 1984—we could no longer afford a place to live. We had been living in a modest apartment building in Huntsville, Alabama, and we had to move when my dad lost another job. Thankfully, a family at the church we attended moved overseas for a year, and they offered us their house to live in while they were away.

This family was loaded, and their house was a shock to my system. The street was a paradise of big, beautiful brick houses and full-grown trees. I remember staying in the boy’s blue room upstairs and trying to determine which of his toys I could touch and which were off limits. Downstairs, their kitchen had a nook with a TV and a long tan couch. They left their cable subscription on for us, and I got to watch Nickelodeon all year long—a lot of “Belle and Sebastian*,” “*Speed Racer,” and “You Can’t Do That On Television.”

We were living large during the months we were in that house. But we were most definitely poor.

But were we living in poverty? That’s a question I cannot answer without having my parents’ 1040 in hand.

The United States poverty threshold—known as the Official Poverty Measure (OPM)—for a family of four in 1983 was $10,178. If my parents made that much or less, we were counted among the American poor. If Dad made one dollar more, we were not counted. We may have been without a home. We may have relied on the kindness of strangers for clothes and food. But if Dad made, say, $11,000, or even $10,179, we would not have been listed among the ranks of Americans living in poverty in 1983.

I thought about this last week when reading this big story from the *New York Times* about a massive drop in childhood poverty. According to a new analysis from a research organization called Child Trends, childhood poverty has fallen by nearly 60% since 1993. That’s incredibly good news, and it’s worth celebrating.

The researchers arrive at this good news in part by shifting the definition of poverty. The OPM for 2019 (when the study stops) is $25,926 for a family of four. But there are a couple odd and problematic features of the OPM. One is that it is keyed mainly to food costs—it estimates only what a family needs to meet their basic dietary needs. But of course, families need more than just food to survive. The Official Poverty Measure does not consider the cost of goods like clothing, shelter, and utilities. Also, when it looks at what a family has to live on, it only includes pre-tax income and cash benefits, such as Social Security—it is blind to other assets that impact a family’s standard of living, including government assistance for housing, utilities, and so on.

The Child Trends study—along with many other studies of U.S. poverty today—uses another definition of poverty known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which has all sorts of improvements designed to provide a more complete picture of the experience of poverty. For instance, it considers geographic locatlon, recognizing that the cost of living in, say, Brownsville, Texas, is quite different than the cost of living in San Francisco, California. It also considers what a family needs to survive beyond just food, while also taking into account all the resources a family has other than income—namely, government benefits like housing assistance, tax credits, and cushions to help pay energy bills.

If you want to get more under the hood of this stuff, you can read about the different poverty measurement systems here.

Welp, my 30 minutes has sailed right by, so I’m going to wrap this abruptly and post it with a mix of Good News and But Also(s).

Good News: Childhood poverty has definitely fallen!

But Also: There is considerable debate about how it happened. You can see some contrarian takes here and here.

But Also 2: The poverty rate in San Antonio is moving in the wrong direction.

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