The Boston Globe recently published an article by Hope Yen that demonstrates the power of what we measure and how we measure it: under this new formulation of the poverty rate in the US, the official figure for 2009 jumps from 14.3% (the previous official rate) to 15.7% – meaning that nearly 1 in 6 Americans is officially poor.
The new formulation comes, in part, in response to the calculation of the official measure, which is based on the cost of an emergency food diet in 1955. The official measure does not take into account other costs of living nor does it include noncash government aid, an element of income that increased dramatically in 2009.
As Yen describes in her article:
The new numbers will not replace the official poverty rate but will be published alongside the traditional figure this fall as a “supplement’’ for federal agencies and state governments to determine antipoverty policies. Economists have long criticized the official poverty measure as inadequate because it only includes pretax cash income and does not account for medical, transportation, and work expenses.
What even this new formulation masks, however, is that in any given pre-recession year, 32% of all Americans spent at least 2 months below the poverty line. I’m sure in 2009, that number was even higher. Poverty is not a single state of being: most families cycle above and below this artificial state we call “the poverty line”, making it hard to measure accurately.
As a nation, as important as it is to do a better job of measuring exactly where the poverty line sits, we need to start measuring and creating policies that promote opportunity – do citizens have opportunity in their communities? Do they have the basic ingredients that allow them to achieve all they can achieve?
As David Brooks argues in a recent article in the New York Times, to find out what matters we need to ask:
“Does a policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help transform their lives?”
Measuring opportunity is not the flip side of measuring poverty, and since what gets measured gets managed, we would benefit both from making a concerted effort to measure the amount of opportunity in people’s lives, and from creating policies that are specifically focused on creating opportunities.