Spotlight Exclusives

Robert Samuelson’s Misguided Portrayal of the New Poverty Measure

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This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Last week Robert J. Samuelson wrote an ill-conceived column in The Washington Post, which among other things said the Obama administration’s development of a new poverty measurement was part of a “political agenda” designed to increase the number of people in this country who are counted as poor.

Because Samuelson is syndicated, this column also appeared in newspapers across the country. It cannot be allowed to go unchallenged by those of us who have been working on this issue for some time and have actual facts on our side to support the need for a modernized approach to calculate who is poor in this country. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

First a little background: Earlier this year the Census Bureau announced plans to develop a supplemental poverty measure (SPM) to address the widely acknowledged flaws in the current measure. That measure has not been revised since the early 1960s when non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing subsidies did not exist and expenses like child care and out-of-pocket medical costs were far lower. The supplemental measure, which will be released in fall 2011 alongside the current official measure, includes all of these factors when calculating who is considered poor.

Samuelson takes this simple and much-needed revision in a data calculation and grinds it into an unrecognizable pulp of inaccuracies and misstatements.

He begins his diatribe with a stunningly out-of-touch portrayal of poverty as a “mind-set that fosters self-defeating behavior – bad work habits, family breakdown, out-of-wedlock births and addictions.” He never acknowledges that the great majority of low-income people remain mired in poverty because there are simply not enough jobs in this country that pay family-supporting wages. Even before the recession in 2006, more than a quarter of jobs paid less than a poverty-level wage.

Samuelson seems to think that the current measure, with a few minor tweaks, is just fine despite being based on spending patterns typical of the 1950s, when food accounted for one-third of the average family’s expenses – compared with one-seventh today. He claims falsely that that the supplemental poverty measure “embraces a relative notion of poverty: People are poor if they’re a relative distance from the top, even if their incomes are increasing.” In fact, the SPM is not a relative measure of poverty in the sense Samuelson has in mind. It is true that the poverty threshold will adjust when the costs of basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing) rise or fall, but it won’t change just because the nation as a whole grows wealthier.

Samuelson suggests that circumstances for the nation’s poor have improved even though the poverty rate has barely budged during the past 40 years. He bases this, in part, on the specious argument that more poor people today have microwave ovens, air conditioning and cell phones. In reality, these have all become relatively low cost items that can no longer be viewed as luxuries. Wal-Mart sells microwaves for $19.95; in warm climates air conditioning is a common feature in even subsidized housing; and cell phones are often a far cheaper alternative to land lines for low-income families whose living arrangements change frequently.

In arguing that the poor’s material well-being has improved, Samuelson does make one important point. He accurately notes that the current poverty measure counts only pre-tax income and ignores other sources of support that were not in place when the measure was adopted. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income workers, food stamps, Medicaid and housing and energy subsidies. Samuelson is, in fact, supporting a key component of the supplemental poverty measure – and one that if calculated accurately could push families above the poverty line.

Samuelson’s contention that the supplemental poverty measure is part of a political agenda designed to increase the poverty rate and “promote income redistribution” could not be further from the truth. The SPM is based on the recommendations of a non-partisan panel and is modeled on the alternative poverty measure adopted in New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is not known if the poverty rate will increase under the supplemental measure. And even if the rate rose it would not change eligibility for public benefits, which will still be based on the official poverty measure.

For decades, the poverty measure has been wrangled over, studied and criticized. But no administration until now has had the courage to do something about it, recognizing that a new measure could result in a higher poverty rate under their watch. Contrary to what Samuelson believes, changing the poverty measure may actually be bad politics. But it is unquestionably good policy.

Posted by Mike


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