Economic Justice

Now is not the time to change the definition of poverty

April 6, 2020

Women’s Voices co-president Ruth Ehresman wrote the Office of Management and Budget (OMB):

I am co-president of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a membership organization with more than 500 members.  I am also a teacher and social worker with more than 40 years experience working with low income families.

A National Emergency has been declared in our country, and our focus should be on helping our communities in this great time of need. Given the circumstances, the time for the public to comment on this important proposal should be extended until after the pandemic is over.

Abundant evidence says that the current poverty measure is too low, leaving out many who cannot afford to meet their basic needs.  Based on studies that estimate how much income families need to meet their basic needs, the Federal Poverty Level would need to be doubled to be an accurate assessment of who is “poor.”

But changes to the current measurement are being looked at that would shrink it further, making it less accurate, and harming efforts to make the right policy choices our country needs to lift people out of poverty.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget is looking at counting resources such as health insurance coverage in the calculation of poverty.  But health insurance is not spendable income that is actually available to the family. If the value of health insurance were simply added as income, it could artificially bump people above the poverty line even though they had far too little cash to afford adequate food or housing. Changes in what is counted in the definition of poverty have serious consequences, and should be studied carefully and openly.

More research into measuring poverty accurately and realistically is valuable, but time must be taken to make sure it is done right. The Trump Administration should make a good-faith effort to convene a diverse and respected group of poverty experts to find more accurate measures of poverty and to understand the impact of the changes they propose on children, working people, retirees, women, people with disabilities, and communities of color. Respected academic poverty researchers and anti-poverty service providers alike are coping now with responding to the pandemic, and cannot provide a full analysis of the consequences of poverty measure options by April 14. Please extend the deadline to avoid defining some people as over the poverty threshold when it is clear they are unable to afford basic necessities.

Thank you for considering our comments.