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Measuring Poverty with 21st Century Tools

I don’t know about you, but I love my smartphone. It’s amazing to think that only 10 years ago, the way we consumed news, caught up on work emails, or kept in touch with family members was so drastically different – then one device came along and changed everything.

Last year, a leading tech company spent nearly $4.5 billion on research and development before bringing their latest innovation to the market. They invested in prototypes and tested different versions of the product to see what performed best, what delivered the most ideal user experience and what, ultimately, would make it to market.

We are beginning to see signs of that kind of innovation in the development of new strategies to measure the number of people living in need. The poverty measure currently being used by the federal government to determine eligibility for a series of vital programs was first developed nearly 50 years ago and has hardly been touched since.

While we don’t have $4.5 billion to do R&D testing, developing alternative ways to measure poverty, even if they are imperfect, is an important step towards drawing a more complete, and informative, picture of the life of Americans in poverty. The annual supplemental poverty measure (SPM) was released by the Census Bureau today, which paints a different picture than the official numbers, causing us to think more deeply about the challenges facing those in need.

For example, by taking into account multiple sources of income and necessary costs, like Medical Out-of-Pocket Expenses, the SPM finds that 12.9 percent of seniors live in poverty, compared to 8.4 percent as measured by the official poverty measure that is based solely on pre-tax cash income.

The supplemental measure is far from perfect, and there is more work to be done. But the SPM, and similar alternative measures, can be another tool for describing and comprehending the struggles of our brothers and sisters in need. Catholic Charities USA supports results-based reform of the social safety net, but it’s hard to measure results when the basic barometer of those in poverty is a tool left over from the days of room-sized computers.

Thankfully, through new research, we know that our old ways of measuring poverty is the equivalent of the brick-like car phones of the past. We encourage new methods to understand the problems facing those in need. Like upgrading to a modern smart phone, these new methods and approaches can unleash quantum leaps in our ability to address the reality of those struggling to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

 

Candy S. Hill is the Executive Vice President for Social Policy and External Affairs at Catholic Charities USA. Follow her on Twitter at @CandyHill_CCUSA