National Academies Press: OpenBook

Measuring Poverty: A New Approach (1995)


« Previous: APPENDIX A Dissent
Suggested Citation:"MEASURING THE POVERTY LINE." National Research Council. 1995. Measuring Poverty: A New Approach. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4759.
Page 386

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APPENDIX A 386 reflects true differences in living costs. There is also a rich literature on statistical properties of alternative imputation procedures that would be required to incorporate in-kind benefits and taxes into measures of family resources. To some people, these contributions may not be eye-catching; they may not be newsworthy; but they are scientific. Instead of focusing on these areas where science can make a contribution, the report is devoted to recommendations and conclusions that are driven by value judgements. According to the report, the poverty line should be raised from its current level, it should rise faster than inflation over time, and fewer resources should be counted when determining whether a family's income is above or below the poverty line. These recommendations are not scientific judgements. They are value judgements made by scientists—with a particular point of view. In essence, the panel has mostly eschewed the role of scientific panel and has instead assumed the role of a government policy maker. By so doing, the panel has not served well either the policy community or the scientific community. Although it can be difficult to establish a precise boundary between where science ends and policy making begins, this panel has ventured far afield in a desire to make a difference. Instead of using strong scientific research to produce recommendations that would compel a particular policy approach, the panel has made recommendations with little scientific bases. My dissent focuses on four major recommendations and conclusions: measuring the poverty line, choosing a range for the poverty line, updating the poverty line, and accounting for medical care in measuring family resources. This dissent is not intended to be a comprehensive critique of the panel report. Although there is considerably more in the report that I find objectionable, to avoid obscuring the central reason for my dissent, I do not address objections that are not germane to it. MEASURING THE POVERTY LINE The report recommends a new method for measuring the poverty line: The poverty threshold should represent a budget for food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities) and a small additional amount to allow for other needs … I focus first on this seemingly noncontroversial recommendation because it illustrates the lack of scientific basis that permeates the report's major recommendations for changing the measurement of poverty. My objection to this recommendation is that the choice of particular commodities is not based on science. The choice may appear to be quite reasonable, and the panel may be correct when it argues that these commodities "represent basic living needs with which no one would quarrel." But

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Each year's poverty figures are anxiously awaited by policymakers, analysts, and the media. Yet questions are increasing about the 30-year-old measure as social and economic conditions change.

In Measuring Poverty a distinguished panel provides policymakers with an up-to-date evaluation of:

  • Concepts and procedures for deriving the poverty threshold, including adjustments for different family circumstances.
  • Definitions of family resources.
  • Procedures for annual updates of poverty measures.

The volume explores specific issues underlying the poverty measure, analyzes the likely effects of any changes on poverty rates, and discusses the impact on eligibility for public benefits. In supporting its recommendations the panel provides insightful recognition of the political and social dimensions of this key economic indicator.

Measuring Poverty will be important to government officials, policy analysts, statisticians, economists, researchers, and others involved in virtually all poverty and social welfare issues.

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