Fight Poverty, Not the Poor
By John Berry
Recently it was announced that the Executive Branch of the Federal Government was proposing a change to redefine how poverty is calculated. Currently, the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) for a family of four in Georgia is $25,750. This amount is arbitrarily defined using data from a 1950’s study that defined poverty as three times the cost of a subsistence diet, adjusted for inflation. The world has changed a lot since then. As women have entered the workforce, the cost of childcare has skyrocketed. So too has the cost of housing, transportation, and healthcare. These changes have rendered the FPL essentially meaningless and unconnected to reality. In fact, many agencies of the government use a multiplier such as 2 times the FPL to determine eligibility. The only good thing about this is that it has been a consistent standard applied when tracking historical data.
Now the administration wants to redefine the FPL; lowering the rate of increase by arguing that as prices rise, people will choose less expensive items and so the consumer price index is overstated. This sounds to me like some academic accounting edit but it is one that will only further hurt the poorest among us by removing many of them from eligibility for government assistance. The cynics amongst us may also suggest that it is a way to say that poverty is declining by simply moving the goalpost and not actually doing anything to solve the problem.
At SVdP our network of 5000 volunteers conduct Home Visits to the poor every day. We have listened to their frustrations and walked through their family budgets trying to help them find a way to make ends meet. As a voice for the poor, we can tell you from experience that $25,750 doesn’t come close to being a financially stable amount on which to raise a family.
Recently, the Economic Policy Institute conducted a family budget study to calculate what it actually costs to live in various communities in our country. Here is what they determined was a minimal monthly budget for a family of four to live in the greater Atlanta area:
Child Care: $968
Other necessities: $727
Monthly total: $6,560
Annual total: $78,717
Another study conducted by researchers at MIT some years ago calculated a Living Wage for the same family in the same area at $54,829.
But what really matters is that the Federal Poverty Level as it stands today doesn’t come close to defining a family income level that can realistically ensure the ability to meet the basic needs of that family. And being on one side or the other of the actual government-defined ‘poverty’ line is meaningless as many millions of people are struggling while earning two and three times that amount.
Let’s not kid ourselves by fictitiously eliminating poverty by trying to simply ‘edit’ it away. Let’s do the real work and start addressing access to affordable housing, increasing access to transportation and lowering the cost of childcare so more families can reach financial stability. Let’s fight poverty. Not the Poor.