Defining poverty

September 20, 1990|By Providence Journal-Bulletin

THE BUSH administration is beginning to look at major revisions in the way poverty is defined for purposes of federal benefits. The current system stems from a crude measure created by a civil servant in the early 1960s. She took the Agriculture Department's cheapest recommended food budget and multiplied it by three to arrive at a poverty line. . . .

While many people defined as poor don't seem to receive nearly enough to make ends meet, the current method may in some cases overstate the extent of poverty.

On the other hand, some say the current formula sets the poverty line unrealistically low. While 30 years ago the average American family was thought to spend three times its food budget to keep body and soul together, it now spends five times that amount, largely because of rises in housing and child care costs.

We shall see. For now, though, let us praise the administration for being willing to open up a hornet's nest to get at something like the truth. Once that's found, we hope demagoguery from right and left won't harm efforts to improve programs to help the poor.

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