A better yardstick

Poverty line: Using unrealistic measures to gauge need is simply bad policy.

September 21, 2000

SUPPOSE you had to manage a family budget using the same numbers your parents did. Chances are, it wouldn't work.

Yet the government is forcing poor people to do that every day.

The poverty line, a number used in determining government-assistance benefits, is derived from a formula created by a government economist in 1963. As Kate Shatzkin reported last week in the Sun, spending patterns have changed significantly in three decades, but the poverty line's formula hasn't.

According to the 1998 poverty threshold, for example, the annual income for a family of four is about $16,700 a year. But can four people manage on a little less than $1,400 a month?

Do the math: In Maryland, the median monthly rent is about $470, and child care can cost that or more. That would leave a family less than $500 a month for the rest of its bills -- an amount that could easily be consumed by groceries alone.

No wonder benefits are determined for many assistance programs at 150 percent or 200 percent of the poverty level. Otherwise, the baseline and reality aren't even in the same ballpark.

The truly unfortunate thing is that while most people agree the poverty level is arrived at using an unrealistic formula, no one is showing the leadership to change it.

Finding a suitable way to lift the poor out of poverty starts with defining poverty realistically. That won't happen using a 30-year-old yardstick.

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