A report released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled “Measuring Access to Opportunity in the United States” takes a look at levels of child poverty in the U.S. and finds that the official measure of poverty does not accurately assess how families are really faring economically and is not able to evaluate the performance of public programs in reducing economic hardship for low-income households.
As described by the report, federal poverty guidelines continue to use a measure of poverty that was set over fifty years ago when food costs made up a third of a household’s budget, compared to less than 10% today. As a result, the measure does not accurately capture households' ever-growing expenditures on housing, child care, health care, and transportation. Researchers have found that families would need an income that is roughly twice the current poverty threshold of $24,000 to meet their basic needs, a conclusion showing just how outdated this measure is.
In contrast, the report uses the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) created by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011. The SPM takes factors such as regional differences in the cost of living into account and weighs in on the impact of non-cash benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing subsidies and tax credits that many low-income families receive.
A key component of this report is the side-by-side comparison of current child poverty rates and what those rates would be in the absence of government interventions. At the national level, the percentage of children living in poverty would nearly double from 18% to 33% without government programs. The District of Columbia has one of the highest percentage disparities in the country: the current rate of 28% would rise in the absence of government interventions so that half of all children in the District would be living in poverty.
It is crucial that lawmakers have accurate tools to assess the performance of these safety-net programs, especially as programs like SNAP continue to face deep cuts. However, as the report states, “the official [poverty] rate does not give us the information we need to determine whether those investments are working.”
The findings of the Casey Foundation report affirm the importance of securing key benefits such as Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP and cash assistance so that children have the opportunity to enjoy full, healthy lives. The experiences of many of Legal Aid’s clients demonstrate that behind these statistics are real individuals affected by these policies, and also show the continued need for improved access and navigation through the process of obtaining benefits.