Spotlight Exclusives

Measures to Gauge Poverty Inch Forward

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Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA), continuing his leadership role in promoting a more accurate federal poverty measure, has now taken the cause to his colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee. In a March 5 letter, Representative McDermott urged Representative David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Representative Alan Mollohan, chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, to fund the Administration۪s budget request to develop a supplemental poverty measure. The letter also requested funding for the design of a separate decent living standard threshold, which would identify what it takes to make ends meet. Both types of measures were included in a bill McDermott sponsored, The Measuring American Poverty Act (H.R. 6941); readers can visit this Spotlight commentary and webcast to get the Congressman۪s own words on why he took this step to get a better federal measure.

The letter comes on the heels of the Census Bureau۪s recent announcement to develop a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The SPM would not replace the current official poverty measure, which is used to set eligibility for a wide array of programs. If funding for the necessary research is approved, the first preliminary SPM would be released in 2011.

The Administration۪s budget, however, did not include a measure similar to the MAP Act۪s decent living standard. So in an important step forward, McDermott urged his colleagues to appropriate an additional $1 million over two years for the National Academy of Sciences to design a measure to gauge decent living standards. In the letter, McDermott described the conceptual differences between the measures:

This new supplemental measure will continue to be an indicator of deprivation, not adequacy, and by no means should the new threshold be used as an indicator of what it takes to make ends meet, avoid material hardship, and enjoy economic security. Accordingly, I also request appropriations of $1 million over two years to the National Academy of Sciences to work in collaboration with the Census Bureau and BLS to develop a method of calculating a decent living standard threshold and make recommendations to both Congress and the relevant statistical agencies. The decent living standard threshold means the amount of annual income that would allow an individual to live at a secure and decent, but modest, standard of living. There is a growing body of work in this area, and an NAS panel to analyze and evaluate existing research is a logical next step in determining an appropriate approach for such a measurement.

In no small measure, a decent living standard is logical in light of the proposed new supplemental. After all, the analysis which is undertaken to define the new supplemental should help ground the research related to a decent living standard. It۪s already an achievement that Congress and the Administration have begun to dance together on a new supplemental measure. If they inch even closer together, the music might really start and multiple measures would follow.

To learn more about the federal poverty measure, visit Spotlight۪s special resource site,

Posted by Jodie


Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn۪t always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and its impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact or

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