How Should We Measure Child Poverty in the United States?

p>child povertyGuest blogger Marcelo Ostria, an NCPA research associate, discusses the challenge involved in measuring child poverty in the United States.

In light of federal spending cuts, the media has recently revisited poverty in the United States.  A recent article in the Christian Post depicts alarming child poverty and hunger rates while another article from the Associated Press asserts staggering poverty levels in the United States not seen since Lyndon B. Johnson Administration’s “war on poverty” began during the mid-1960’s. There is no doubt that American families have been affected by the recent economic downturn; however, there is a fundamental problem with sensationalizing a story containing serious assertions about our nation’s children based on poor data.  If we really want to understand child poverty in this country, we ought to begin by measuring it accurately.

The United States is one of the few developed countries with an official poverty line.  The U.S. Census Bureau uses a set of income thresholds that vary by family size, a poverty-measure method that has virtually remained unaltered since its implementation in 1964. By solely correlating poverty to income, however, we are disregarding variances in regional cost of living, and ignoring  in-kind benefits, such as food stamps, school lunches, cash benefits, subsidized housing and home energy assistance.

Our government continues to use this official poverty line to define poverty in the United States, although an additional measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) has provided limited statistical reports addressing the aforementioned issues not being addressed by the official poverty measure.  The latest Census Bureau SPM report indicates that  individuals below the age of 15 are automatically deemed poor if their household falls below the poverty line, but that may not always be the case.  If we want to get serious about measuring child poverty and doing something about it, we must first get an accurate measure of child poverty.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Kyle says:

    This is a big issue that politicians skate on all the time. Ideas like food security are wildly inaccurate measures, but it gets some people elected and makes others lots of money.

  2. Lo says:

    GREAT to hear that some sort of implementation on accurate child poverty measures should be researched more. I agree that the poverty-measure method does not give an accurate measure of the current true poverty in the US.

  3. Andrea Hurtado says:

    Great post! I have been wondering for a long time how we measure child poverty and this post makes me realize we have a long way to go before making appropriate assessments on child poverty. There seems that a lot of intangibles would be hard to measure with children, but the alternative is to alarm the public and provide inaccurate data for purposes of some external political agenda.

  4. Ryan Ritz says:

    I agree with Andrea. How do even have accurate indicators of child hunger without Census data? Moreover, how do you explain that when our childhood obesity rate is the highest in the world? I know that doesn’t mean that the child is healthy, but it means food insecurity is not the issue and similar dubious issues are correlated with poverty.

  5. Lilly C. says:

    Such a big issue that often gets swiped under the rug. I’ve wondered how child poverty is measured in the US, and what a dissapointment to read that no accurate measures exist. It’s good to get people curious on what will happen next.

  6. Adenie says:

    Thank you for such awareness! It is of utter importance to count on an updated form of measuring poverty here in the United States.

  7. Allen Schmidt says:

    Enjoyed reading this article! This is something I’ve been wondering about for quite some time. Often thought about how US officials were going about measuring child poverty and I am not surprised we aren’t coming up with very efficient measures! I would think that targeted measures and surveys would also be necessary, ones that focus on children!

  8. Espy says:

    It’s even worse when they compare it to other countries, with different (or often no uniform measures at all).

  9. Patel says:

    It is crazy how we are using the same measurement scale from 1964, oh like America hasn’t changed since then. Why hasn’t there been a more up to date methodology to study this social problem. Surely using measures from 1964 means that the policies we implement will be fragmented from the actual reality.

  10. Frank says:

    @Espy: You bring up a good point. I would like to see a comparative study on child poverty measures that can shed light on perhaps what some countries are finding and what they aren’t.

  11. Frank says:

    @Patel: As the post mentions, there is a new methodology, but it is experimental and it looks like it still has its own issues. I agree with you that it is ridiculous that our policymakers continue to make appropriation decisions based on such an old and inefficient poverty measure.

  12. Ryler says:

    Very informative post, Marcelo. I am wondering if the Census Bureau has plans to address child poverty measures in the future. From what I read, it seems to be disregarding any possible efforts to include these measures.

  13. Gabriela says:

    Shocking that current measures are so outdated. I heard on a local Texas radio station not too long ago that a group of mothers of a middle class suburbs were making meal back packs for children they noticed were not eating. This shocked me considering programs available ti families… Yet their student group expanded and they started doing this at neighboring schools feeding hundreds of children. This is why it is important to update these measures but also clearly define what we mean by poverty in the United States.

  14. Roland says:

    @Gabriela: I also believe I read something about those middle class suburbs in Texas. It’s definitely interesting because we create laws and benefits without having accurate measures.

  15. Gabriel Odom says:

    As a statistician, I always wish to have better data. However, the data we have can only be as good as the surveys written by the Census Bureau. Additionally, there is a trade-off: the more questions we ask, the better data we collect; however, the more questions we ask, the less likely people are to answer the surveys.