Bloomberg Wants to Redefine Poverty

One day you want to throw a towel at him (yesterday, actually) and the next day you want to thank him for being the first public official to say what’s needed to be said for 40 years.

That Mayor Bloomberg. Yesterday he’s wanting everybody to play nice when things political are far from nice in this country; today he wants New York City to redefine poverty because the federal poverty standard is way out of whack.

The Bloomberg administration, frustrated by the federal government’s Great Society method of determining who is poor, is developing its own measure, which city officials say will offer a more modern and accurate picture of poverty.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to adopt the new measure in part so he can better assess whether the tens of millions of dollars the city plans to spend on new anti-poverty programs will improve poor people’s standard of living.

But officials also hope the new measure will set off a nationwide re-examination of the current federal standard, and prompt other cities and states to adopt the city’s method.

Back in the day, it seemed to make sense to figure out what a modest amount of groceries cost, multiply that by three, and call it the poverty level. But because rent, energy costs, etc. etc. do not remain in a constant relationship with groceries, the formula became outdated many years ago.

In fact, by the 1980’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics Lower Living Standard was considered much more accurate (and pegged poverty much higher). However, as a spokesperson for that Bureau explained to me when I asked in the mid 1980’s, one of the first things Ronald Reagan did upon becoming president was cut the funds the BLS was counting on to update its living standard assessments. This reminded me of the truism that when ideologues take over, the first thing they do is kill off the intellectuals.

In any case, we have lived in an ideologically based land of mystery as far as figuring out what poverty is. One red flag in Bloomberg’s approach depends upon how it is used:

The city’s formula would take into account the money families must spend annually on necessities including rent, utilities and child care. But it would also factor in the value of financial assistance received, like housing vouchers or food stamps.

This is bad if accounting for housing vouchers or food stamps are used the way the right wing has commonly used them: to deny that the poor are, after all, poor at all.  The stupidity and smugness of such arguments can be seen here, or even here. In other words, any blowhard making such an argument who has not taken the food stamp challenge (and for that matter, tried living in some place other than his or her comfy environs while they’re at it) is just that — a blowhard.

Thus I’m a bit cautious about where Bloomberg might be going with this. I hope it’s more in the direction of the Self-Sufficiency Standard developed by Dr. Diana Pearce a decade ago. Not only did her methodology track the local costs of living, it framed self-sufficiency as a combination of employer based or comprehensive governmental supports. To illustrate, say some eight years ago when the New York self-sufficiency standard was published, it took $30,000 for a family of three to be self-sufficient in an upstate county. If the public policy goal actually were financial self-sufficiency, then policy options would range from a minimum wage of $15 an hour to a wide range of social supports for those making less. Either that, or all the talk of self-sufficiency generated by the Republicans in those years was just a lot of self-serving, pompous hogwash.

So which path will Mayor Bloomberg take? Watch closely.

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