Reasons for Measuring Poverty in the United States in the Context of Public Policy
A Historical Review, 1916-1995
Gordon M. Fisher
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author
and do not represent the position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
August 1999, revised June 2000
- The Progressive Era
- The New Deal Era
- The Early Post-World-War-II Period
- The Period Leading Up to the War on Poverty
- The War on Poverty
- The Seventies and the Eighties
- The 1995 Report of the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance and Events Leading Up to It
In May 1995, the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance appointed by the National Research Council in response to a 1990 Congressional request published a report(1) in which it recommended a new approach for developing an official poverty measure for the U.S. Since 1995, work has gone on towards the possible implementation of the Poverty Panel's recommendations; this work has progressed to the point that in July 1999, the Census Bureau issued a report(2) on experimental poverty measures which presented six alternative poverty measures which are illustrative variations of the Poverty Panel's recommendations. Discussion and possible adoption of an alternative poverty measure involves an intricate mixture of technical issues (for instance, equivalence scales) and policy issues which reflect strongly held value judgments. Beyond individual technical and policy issues, the selection of a particular alternative poverty measure involves policy decisions which relate to the underlying purpose(s) or reasons for an official poverty measure. One could always simply compile an a priori or theoretical list of purposes of official poverty measures. Instead, however, it was suggested that I undertake an investigation of specific purposes for poverty measures given in actual documents that presented or discussed poverty measures for public policy purposes in the U.S. In this review I have included documents mostly but not entirely government documents published between 1916 and 1995. (As will be seen, "reasons for measuring poverty" and "purposes for having a poverty measure" often shade over into "purposes for which one uses a poverty measure.")
Probably the earliest federal document that presented something resembling quantitative information on the low-income population was the report of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, published in 1916. The Commission had been created in 1912 by an Act of Congress which directed it to "inquire into the general condition of labor in the principal industries of the United States...especially in those which are carried on in corporate forms; into existing relations between employers and employees; into the effect of industrial conditions on public welfare and into the rights and powers of the community to deal therewith...into the growth of associations of employers and of wage earners and the effect of such associations upon the relations between employers and employees; into the extent and results of methods of collective bargaining.... The commission shall seek to discover the underlying causes of dissatisfaction in the industrial situation and report its conclusions thereon." The Commission's final report actually included four different reports signed by various subsets of the nine commissioners. The longest of these reports was by Basil Manly, the Commission's Director of Research and Investigation, and was signed by four commissioners. The Manly report focused on "the most important question placed before the commission by Congress, namely, 'the underlying causes of dissatisfaction in the industrial situation.'" The report identified four main "Causes of Industrial Unrest": "Unjust distribution of wealth and income.... Unemployment and denial of an opportunity to earn a living.... Denial of justice in the creation, in the adjudication, and in the administration of law.... Denial of the right and opportunity to form effective organizations." The report's recommendations included federal collection and publication of information about industrial wages, hours of labor, and extent of unemployment, and state and federal limitation of working hours in certain industries.(3) As part of its description of the distribution of wealth and income, the Manly report estimated that "at least one-third and possibly one-half of the families of wage earners employed in manufacturing and mining earn [annually] less than enough to support them in anything like a comfortable and decent condition." In connection with this estimate, the report cited budget studies that showed "that the very least that a family of five persons can live upon in anything approaching decency is $700 [annual income]"; it implied that an annual income of less than $500 for such families represented "abject poverty."(4)
[Go To Contents]
After the above late-Progressive-Era report, there were essentially no federal documents with quantitative information on the low-income or poverty population until the Depression and the New Deal. Historian James Patterson has pointed out that during the Depression, public policy focused so intensely on the concept of unemployment that the concepts of poverty and low income were almost ignored.(5) Despite this concentration on unemployment, however, there were a few New Deal federal documents that did present some quantitative information on the poverty or low-income population
The earliest such New Deal document that I have found was a chartbook issued in late 1934 by the Committee on Economic Security, the Cabinet-level group that drafted the legislative proposals that ultimately became the Social Security Act. The majority of the charts were on unemployment and relief, but one chart showed estimates (not based on Decennial Census or national sample survey data) of the number of families in various income classes in 1929.(6) According to these estimates, which were taken from a private study(7), 42 percent of all American families were estimated to be in "subsistence & poverty" in 1929, with annual incomes of $1,500 or less. ("Subsistence & poverty" were terms commonly used at the time in categorizing standard budgets by level. The "subsistence & poverty" groups correspond to what we today think of as the poverty population.) The caption to the chart stated that "It is generally conceded that the families in these categories need some form of protection against loss of income from such hazards as unemployment, old age, destitution, and sickness."
A few years later, somewhat more information on the low-income population (using a different definition) was presented in a 1938 federal government report on consumer incomes based on 1935-1936 data from an extensive national sample survey, the Study of Consumer Purchases. The report included several paragraphs and a small amount of tabular data on the lower third of consumer units (families and "single" [unrelated] individuals, with incomes not adjusted for family (consumer unit) size). The material briefly described some social and economic characteristics of this lower "third of the Nation," which comprised all consumer units with annual incomes below $780.(8) The breakdown of consumer units by thirds presumably reflects the "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" of President Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 Inaugural Address.(9) The overall purpose of the Study of Consumer Purchases was to develop estimates of consumer expenditures to study the nation's consumption demands in relation to its productive capacities, but the income distribution data that it also yielded were the most complete ever published to that date. The report noted that the income data would help legislatures apportion taxes equitably and without damaging industry, and that businessmen needed better data on potential demand for their products. In addition, "Those concerned with the living standards of the people need more accurate information on the extent to which shortage of income brings poverty damaging to health and happiness.... Any attempt on the part of Government or business to grapple with basic economic problems must rely heavily on what can be learned of the distribution of income among the various groups of the Nation's consumers."(10)
In January 1940, at the end of the Depression decade of the 1930's, the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy the fourth of a series of decennial conferences on child welfare held under White House auspices was held in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Children's Bureau published the final report of the conference early in 1942. Like the earlier conferences, the 1940 conference sought to call public attention to urgent unmet needs of children, and to contribute to the improvement of the condition of children. The final report noted that the conference was concerned with three overlapping groups of American children: all children; children in specific disadvantaged groups (e.g., crippled and blind children, and orphans); and children who were in families whose income "does not permit the level of material comfort and security that we have come to think of as a tolerable American standard of living."(11) To estimate the size of the third group, the conference staff made use of the "maintenance" budget, the higher of two budgets developed by Margaret Stecker of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during 1935-1937.(12) Using a version of the maintenance budget roughly adjusted for variations in family size, the conference staff estimated that one half to two thirds of children in urban families were below the level of the maintenance budget. (The two thirds figure applied to 1935, while it was believed that the 1939 proportion would have been between one half and two thirds.)(13)
In 1942, the National Resources Planning Board published a report, Security, Work, and Relief Policies, which examined existing social welfare programs (various forms of cash relief, social insurance, and work relief) and made recommendations for improvements in them. The report included several estimates of unmet need for "public aid" [cash transfers e.g., general relief]. For one of these estimates, the report adopted the WPA emergency budget (the lower of the two budgets mentioned in the previous paragraph) as a criterion of need for public aid. Using a version of the emergency budget adjusted for variations in family size, the report estimated that in 1935-1936, 21 percent of all persons and over 25 percent of all children in urban communities were members of families (of two or more) that had not received some form of relief but had incomes below the level of the emergency budget.(14) (The report also used the emergency budget to assess the adequacy of benefit levels under various public-aid programs.(15))
[Go To Contents]
In July 1949, the chairman of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Economic Report [JCER subsequently renamed the Joint Economic Committee] appointed a subcommittee to do a study of low-income families.(16) The appointment of this Subcommittee on Low-Income Families [SLIF] grew out of the post-World-War-II inflationary spiral. In 1947-1948, Senator Ralph Flanders [R-Vermont] had headed an earlier subcommittee of the JCER to investigate rising prices; that subcommittee had found that food price increases had severely impacted low-income and fixed-income groups, making it difficult for them to purchase nutritious diets and also to buy other necessities. Senator Flanders also became concerned about the large number of low-income persons unable to afford market rents for housing, and suggested that the JCER do a study of low-income groups; he was one of the senators appointed to the SLIF.(17) In November 1949, the SLIF issued a staff report containing material on low-income families to serve as background for the subcommittee's hearings and deliberations.(18) The introduction to the report noted that the JCER was studying low-income families and their effect on the national economy because "the low purchasing power of these groups retards the future rate of economic progress of the Nation.... If there are to be ample employment opportunities....[o]ld markets must be expanded and new markets developed. The unfilled wants of American families now living on inadequate incomes constitute a great underdeveloped economic frontier a new and expansible market for the products of American industry. In an economic system geared to mass production, there must be mass consumption if severe economic dislocations are to be avoided."(19) The report presented data on the number and characteristics of nonfarm families with annual money incomes below $2,000 (in 1948 dollars), farm families with money incomes below $1,000, and unrelated individuals with incomes below $1,000.(20) The final report of the subcommittee, issued in March 1950, recommended "that local communities, private business and professional groups, and Federal, State, and local governments take all appropriate action to provide opportunities for low-income families to become full partners in prosperous American communities," and that government agencies "continue to study the relationship between the distribution of income and the stability and progress of the economy as a whole." Specific recommendations included a study of Federal farm price-support programs to see how they might be modified to be of greater benefit to low-income farmers; consideration by states of establishing minimum wages in industries not covered by the federal minimum wage; federal financial assistance to states for elementary and secondary education "to help equalize educational opportunity throughout the Nation"; establishment of a national scholarship fund for the higher education of able but needy students; revision and liberalization of the Aid to Dependent Children program; expansion of the National School Lunch Program; enactment of a social insurance program for the permanently and totally disabled; and "the development of a comprehensive program, based upon the voluntary cooperation of public and private agencies, which will permit all persons who so desire to participate in a system of health insurance."(21)
Early in 1955, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Economic Report reconstituted its Subcommittee on Low-Income Families to do further studies of the problems of low-income families. In discussing the work to be done by the Subcommittee, one of its members put the problem of low-income families in the context of recession-related unemployment, technological unemployment, and the problems of depressed areas.(22) In October 1955, the SLIF issued a staff report containing material on low-income families to serve as background for the subcommittee's hearings.(23) After referring to the Employment Act of 1946 and its goals of "maximum employment, production, and purchasing power," the introduction to the staff report commented that "the existence of a significant number of Americans adjudged to be poor is a matter of serious concern." It differentiated between low-income families and individuals who were "technically unemployable" and those who could achieve higher earnings "if given adequate opportunity.... Economic growth is everywhere retarded by the burden placed on society by its dependent members and by those who, although in the labor force, display low levels of productivity. Continued development of our national economic strength and levels of output is dependent in part upon more efficient utilization of available manpower. Greater utilization of our labor resources in turn is partially dependent upon raising the level of economic activity in depressed rural and industrial areas. Many of the low-income population are located in such areas.... A paradox of modern economic society is the continuing existence, during periods of full employment, of geographic pockets in which chronic unemployment and underemployment are excessively high.... The materials presented in this report indicate that the problems of low income are complex and many-faceted...."(24) The report included data on the number and characteristics of nonfarm families with annual money incomes below $2,000 (in 1948 dollars), farm families with money incomes below $1,000, and unrelated individuals with incomes below $1,000.(25) The final report of the subcommittee, issued in January 1956, expressed the conviction "that with national income at peak levels and with relatively full employment, now is the time for a renewed and vigorous attack on the remaining problems of low-income groups," with action involving "the concerted efforts of all segments of our national life all levels of government working with labor and management and private community groups and organizations." Specific recommendations (focusing primarily on federal programs) included consideration of legislation to establish social insurance programs covering temporary and permanent disability; measures to make adequate health care more widely available and affordable; establishment of a single federally-aided program of general public assistance in place of existing categorical programs; direct federal grants to states for education, "initially for construction of school plant and equipment"; establishment of a national scholarship fund to aid needy persons who could benefit from further education; expansion of adult education programs and encouragement of nongovernment vocational training and retraining programs; various measures to aid economically depressed rural and industrial areas and low-income families living in them; "[i]ntensive studies to identify the population at substandard levels of living [the long-term poor] and the causes of their low economic status"; and submission to Congress of periodic reports "on the current status and size of the low-income population and the progress made in the alleviation of poverty and elimination of its causes...."(26)
[Go To Contents]
In December 1959, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress published a paper on the low-income population by Robert Lampman, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; the paper was prepared in connection with a Committee study of employment, growth, and price levels.(27) The paper had been requested by the Committee, and was intended to refute the claim by John Kenneth Galbraith (in his 1958 book The Affluent Society) that modern poverty would not be reduced by economic growth, as it had been in the past.(28) In the introduction to his paper, Lampman wrote, "This study is directed to the general question of how much progress is being made in overcoming poverty in the United States.... A major purpose of any study of low income should be, of course, to provide background for policymaking aimed at elimination of poverty. Hence, a leading question which motivates all the others asked above is, what preventive and remedial programs can we improve or initiate to hasten the complete victory over poverty?"(29) The paper included data on the number and some characteristics of families and persons with 1947 and 1957 incomes below a modified version (adjusted for family size) of the 1949 SLIF's low-income line.(30)
During the 1960-1962 period, there were no significant government studies which measured poverty. However, there were a number of private articles and books which did so. Several of these are discussed here because they influenced President Kennedy (directly or indirectly) to begin the process that ultimately led to President Johnson's War on Poverty(31), and thus had an indirect influence on public policy.
In March 1962, Michael Harrington published his landmark book, The Other America.(32) In it, he sought to convince readers that despite the rise to affluence of much of American society in the 1950's, the U.S. still had a major poverty problem not just "pockets" of poverty, but between 40 and 50 million American citizens (roughly a quarter of the population) "existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency." He hoped that public recognition of "the huge, enormous, and intolerable fact of poverty in America" would persuade the public that "the moral obligation is plain: there must be a crusade against this poverty in our midst."(33) His analysis of the poverty population was mostly qualitative, with chapters on dispossessed workers, the rural poor, the Negro poor, and the aged poor, and shorter sections on several other groups. His actual statistical measurement or analysis of poverty was rather exiguous(34): he set a poverty line of "somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 for an urban family of four" (with unspecified adjustments to be made for family size and other factors), and concluded without specifying a year that this would result in a poverty population of "around 50,000,000 people."(35) He did not put great stress on a particular figure: "If some statistician should find an error in technical approach, if he could say, there are 10,000,000 less poor, that would not really be important. Give or take 10,000,000, the American poor are one of the greatest scandals of a society that has the ability to provide a decent life for every man, woman, and child." On the other hand, he did note at one point that "the choice of figure will determine one's picture of the kind of people who make up the culture of poverty.... This obviously is of great importance, for at least one consequence of a study of poverty should be to point America toward those groups that must be given special help."(36)
In April 1962, the Conference on Economic Progress (CEP) a non-profit group which favored increased public spending to stimulate economic growth, full employment, and full production, and to meet important human needs published a study(37) on poverty and deprivation in the United States the "bulky pamphlet" referred to by Macdonald (see footnote 31). (The study was directed by Leon Keyserling, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Truman.) The study identified the "top domestic problem for the 1960's" as being "to prevent the swiftly advancing technology and automation from continuing to cause with periodic ups and downs a long term rising volume of unemployed workers and idle plants," equating this problem with "maintaining a high enough rate of national economic growth to utilize fully the constant upsurge in our productive powers." It noted that economic growth since 1953 had been "little better than half the needed rate," resulting in higher unemployment after the most recent economic recovery than after earlier post-World-War-II economic recoveries. "Satisfactory" economic growth "requires expansion of both private consumption and public programs devoted to the general welfare which means serving unmet human needs."(38) The study presented figures on the number of Americans in "poverty" and "deprivation" in 1929, 1935-36, 1947, 1953, and 1960. It set a poverty line of $4,000 (in 1960 dollars) for families of all sizes and $2,000 for unrelated individuals, and defined "deprivation" (also in 1960 dollars) as being between this poverty line and $6,000 (for families) or $3,000 (for unrelated individuals). By these definitions, a total of 77 million Americans 43 percent of the total population were living in either poverty or deprivation in 1960; the study used these striking figures and other arguments to seek to dispel what it described as the "growing complacency" of recent years about the existence of poverty and deprivation in the U.S. The study noted that under its (constant-dollar) definition of poverty, the number of Americans in poverty had dropped at a much slower rate during the period of low economic growth between 1953 and 1960 than it had from 1935-36 to 1953.(39) The study's policy recommendations included the following: government statement of "higher and more realistic goals" for economic performance (e.g., low unemployment, high economic growth rate), "including specific targets for the reduction of poverty and deprivation"; higher outlays under the federal budget "as an instrument of economic growth"; higher transfer payments under Social Security, Old-Age Assistance [a federal-state public assistance program which was a predecessor of the present Supplemental Security Income program], and unemployment insurance; reduction of the tax burden on low-income families to stimulate consumption and economic growth as well as to directly reduce poverty and deprivation; a liberalization of the existing tight money policy; an "all-out attack...against farm poverty"; and higher wage increases to keep up with productivity increases, as well as a "considerabl[e]" increase in the minimum wage and a broadening of its coverage.(40)
In 1962 Gabriel Kolko published a book(41) on the distribution of wealth, income, and power in the United States. He wrote the book in hopes of refuting what he called "the dominant social theory of our time" that there had been a significant redistribution of income in the U.S. since the Great Depression, extending prosperity to the great majority of the population and making America into a mass-consumption, almost classless society.(42) As part of his refutation, he presented figures on the proportion of American spending units (families and unrelated individuals) who were below what he called the "maintenance" and "emergency" levels in 1947, 1951, and 1957. His "emergency" level can be considered a poverty level, while his "maintenance" level was conceptually equivalent to the CEP's deprivation level. He found that during those years, a total of roughly half of all families and unrelated individuals had been below the maintenance level, while roughly a third had been below the emergency level.(43) He did not propose a specific set of reforms to deal with the "far-reaching problems" he had described. "Rather, I have attempted to focus attention on the economic realities of our society, and on the disparity between them and the dominant theories on equality and economic justice in the United States. Perhaps the ideal of a social and economic democracy the type of society erroneously said to exist in the United States today will at least serve as the stimulus for its ultimate creation."(44)
In May 1963, Walter Heller, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), sent a memorandum(45) to President Kennedy about "Progress and Poverty." This memorandum was not published, but it is discussed here because of its role in the sequence of events that led to the declaration of the War on Poverty.(46) Using figures prepared by Robert Lampman, "CEA's expert on poverty," the memorandum discussed "the drastic slowdown in the rate at which the economy is taking people out of poverty." In two tables attached to Heller's memorandum, Lampman added poverty/low-income figures for 1961 to the figures for 1947 and 1957 presented in his 1959 study discussed above, and also provided figures on the number of families in various years between 1947 and 1961 with incomes below $3,000 in 1961 dollars (an earlier version of what became the CEA's family poverty line presented in its January 1964 report discussed below). Both sets of figures showed that the decrease in the poverty rate slowed sharply between 1956/1957 and 1961. Heller's memorandum said that the "distressing" figures "offer one more demonstration of the costs of economic slack. And they, therefore, also provide another dimension of what's at stake in the proposed tax cut." In this particular memorandum, however, Heller did not use the poverty figures to argue for a specific policy such as an attack on poverty.
In June 1963, an Advisory Committee on Standard Budget Research appointed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) made its report to the Bureau. The focus of the Committee's report was the revision of BLS' City Worker's Family Budget (CWFB), which represented a living standard higher than poverty. However, the uses which the report described for the CWFB and other standard budgets are also applicable to poverty lines. The three major uses described in the report were: appraisal of the economic condition of groups or of the total population; evaluation of the need for and the effect of specific laws and programs; and guidance of administrative determinations of need.(47)
In July 1963, Mollie Orshansky a social science research analyst working for the Social Security Administration (SSA) published "Children of the Poor,"(48) an article in which she described an initial version of her poverty thresholds (for families with children only). The article seems to have been connected with an SSA research project on poverty as it affected children; Orshansky's original purpose was not to introduce a new general measure of poverty.(49) In the introduction to this article, Orshansky wrote, "...there is an underlying disquietude reflected in our current social literature, an uncomfortable realization that an expanding economy has not brought gains to all in equal measure. It is reflected in the preoccupation with counting the poor do they number 30 million, 40 million, or 50 million?...It would be one thing if poverty hit at random, and no one group were singled out. It is another thing to realize that some seem destined to poverty almost from birth by their color or by the economic status or occupation of their parents.... Year after year the same kinds of people continually appear at the bottom of the income pyramid."(50) In the body of the article, Orshansky presented statistics on the number of families with children and the number of children in poverty using two sets of poverty thresholds one set based on the Agriculture Department's low-cost food plan and another set (the set ultimately adopted for official use) based on the even cheaper economy food plan.(51) At the end of the article she noted the need for refining the standard for measuring poverty and the need for basic research into the cause and cure of chronic poverty, and concluded, "If it be true that the children of the poor today are themselves destined to be the impoverished parents of tomorrow, then some social intervention is needed to break the cycle, to interrupt the circuits of hunger and hopelessness that link generation to generation. For the common benefit of all we must assure the security and well-being of all our children at the same time the Nation's most precious and most perishable resource."(52)
[Go To Contents]
In his January 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty. In connection with this announcement, the (January) 1964 Report of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) contained a chapter on "The Problem of Poverty in America."(53) The chapter began by noting President Johnson's declaration of "all-out war on poverty in America," and setting forth the reasons for making the elimination of poverty a national goal. In presenting an analysis of the poverty population in recent years, the chapter said that "[a]lthough the analysis is statistical, the major concern is with the human problems that the numbers reflect." The chapter said that the analysis "provides a valid benchmark for assessing the dimensions of the task of eliminating poverty, setting the broad goals of policy, and measuring our past and future progress toward their achievement.... To mount an attack on poverty we must know how to select our targets. Are the poor concentrated in any single geographical area? Are they confined to a few easily identifiable groups in society?"(54) The chapter presented figures on the number of families with incomes below $3,000 (in 1962 dollars) during 1947 and the years from 1950 to 1962, and on characteristics of such families in 1947, 1959, and 1962.(55) The chapter concluded with a section on "Strategy Against Poverty."(56)
In January 1965, Mollie Orshansky published "Counting the Poor: Another Look at the Poverty Profile,"(57) an analysis of the poverty population using a refined and extended version of her poverty thresholds (including thresholds for unrelated individuals and families without children, as well as for families with children). To a considerable degree, this article was a reaction to the fact that the Johnson CEA's family poverty line(58) of $3,000 was not adjusted by family size, resulting in an underestimate of children in poverty and an overestimate of aged persons in poverty.(59) Orshansky mentioned the problem of the CEA's size-unadjusted $3,000 figure in the first sentence of this article, and went on to write, "...the Nation is committed to a battle against poverty. And as part of planning the how, there is the task of identifying the whom. The initiation of corrective measures need not wait upon final determination of the most suitable criterion of poverty, but the interim standard adopted and the characteristics of the population thus described will be important in evaluating the effectiveness of the steps taken."(60) After describing how she had developed her poverty thresholds, she compared the poverty populations under her thresholds and the Johnson CEA's poverty line. She noted a statement in the 1964 CEA report that even under a different poverty measure, "the analysis of the sources of poverty, and of the programs needed to cope with it, would remain substantially unchanged"; she went on to disagree with this statement, commenting, "...at least the relative importance of various phases of the poverty question does depend on the [poverty line] criterion used.... The resulting count of the poor [under her poverty thresholds] therefore includes fewer small families and more large ones, many of them with children.... Clearly a profile of the poor [under the Johnson CEA's poverty line] that includes large numbers of farm families and aged couples may raise different questions and evoke different answers than when the group is characterized [under her thresholds] by relatively more young nonfarm families many of them with several children."(61)(Indeed, Orshansky herself subsequently noted that the significantly higher child poverty count under her measure "strengthened the rationale for the Head Start program...."(62)) After analyzing the characteristics of the poverty population under her thresholds, Orshansky stated in her conclusion that "[t]he causes of poverty are many and varied.... Neither the present circumstances nor the reasons for them are alike for all our impoverished millions, and the measures that can help reduce their number must likewise be many and varied. No single program, placing its major emphasis on the needs of one special group alone, will succeed. Any complex of programs that does not allow for the diversity of the many groups among the poor will to that degree leave the task undone."(63)
In May 1965, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) adopted the SSA (Orshansky) poverty thresholds as a working definition of poverty.(64) A May 10 internal OEO briefing memorandum on the new poverty definition noted that it "surfaces segments of the massive over-all [poverty] problem in a manner that focuses attention on developing a solution to the 'right' problems.... [and] provides the basis for the establishment of a 'poverty index' against which progress can be measured."(65)
In June 1965, the Census Bureau issued its first report(66) in the Current Population Reports series that provided information on the number of persons in poverty under a quasi-official definition. However, this report did not use the SSA (Orshansky) poverty thresholds, which (as just noted) had been adopted by OEO as a working definition of poverty only the previous month. Instead, the report used a version of the Johnson CEA's poverty line; it applied the $3,000(67) and $1,500 figures to 1963 income data without adjusting them for the change in prices between 1962 and 1963. The report presented information on what it called "low-income" (rather than "poor") families and unrelated individuals in 1963, as well as historical data on the number of families (but not unrelated individuals) with incomes less than $3,000 (also in 1963 dollars rather than 1962 dollars) during years between 1947 and 1963. Interestingly, the report had no comments about the purpose for preparing and presenting the figures, or uses to which they might be put; it did not even mention the War on Poverty or the fact that the $3,000 and $1,500 figures had been adopted as a (quasi-official) definition of poverty by the Council of Economic Advisers. It seems reasonable to assume that this sharp contrast with other analyses discussed here was related to a Census Bureau view of itself as a statistical agency rather than an agency advocating the adoption of specific policies.
In July 1965, Mollie Orshansky published "Who's Who Among the Poor: A Demographic View of Poverty,"(68) a further analysis of the poverty population under her thresholds in 1963 together with initial figures on the poverty population in 1964. In the opening sections of the article, she wrote, "...the eyes of the world are trained on the Nation as for the first time in modern history an affluent state declares it has both the power and the persuasion to extend its bounty to all its citizens. To translate the national concern into effective action, attention must now be directed to the different groups represented among the poor and so to set the target for particular types of programs.... Much of the recent discussion of the war on poverty and the possibility of winning it centers on the number assumed as the target.... It is perhaps more difficult to define poverty as a public issue than in some other context because in a sense such a procedure implies how much of its public funds and civic energy the Nation wishes to commit to the task.... Even if we assume some consensus as to the number who merit and will receive attention, it must be determined for how many the best solution is likely to be a job, for how many it will rather be preparation for a better one, and for how many the best help will be in the form of increased financial assistance or special services."(69)
In January 1966, the CEA issued its annual report for 1966 the first such report to use the SSA (Orshansky) poverty thresholds as the federal government's (quasi-official) definition of poverty. (The CEA's (January) 1965 report had used the $3,000 family poverty line as its main poverty definition, while briefly discussing the SSA thresholds as an alternative definition.(70)) The 1966 report presented figures on the number of persons in poverty by the SSA definition in 1959-1964. The report commented that "[f]ive years of prosperity and continued economic expansion have contributed significantly to reducing the number of people who live in poverty.... As a result both of further economic growth and of the new antipoverty programs, the data for 1965 will undoubtedly show a further drop in the number of poor." After providing some analysis of the poverty statistics, the report noted that despite "[e]ncouraging progress...the dimensions of poverty in America are still disturbing. Expanded investment in human resources and the eradication of racial discrimination are vital parts of the total antipoverty program. However, for the aged and for families headed by females, continued improvement of income-maintenance programs remains the major route out of poverty, since most of them are not and cannot be active members of the labor force."(71)
In March 1966, the Census Bureau published its first report that contained poverty statistics using the SSA (Orshansky) poverty concept. The report was not a tabulation of statistics on the national poverty population; instead, it was an advance report of results of an OEO-financed survey of Watts and neighboring areas of Los Angeles in the wake of the riots there during the summer of 1965.(72) "The survey was conducted on the recommendation of Dr. Andrew F. Brimmer...in connection with his work on the task force appointed by President Johnson to investigate the riots in Watts and adjoining areas of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965." After describing the decrease in real median family income in these areas from 1959 to 1965, the report briefly discussed 1965 poverty rates in these areas.
In a December 1966 article, Orshansky commented that the SSA poverty measure (her poverty thresholds) "is now being used as a working definition of poverty to suggest the numbers and kinds of households to whom antipoverty programs might be directed."(73) In a March 1968 article, she wrote that the existence of an "official working definition" of poverty "makes it possible to evaluate progress and pinpoint specific areas of concern in a way not feasible before."(74)
In May 1968, the Census Bureau issued its first report(75) devoted entirely to the subject of the poverty population under the SSA (Orshansky) definition of poverty. The report covered trends in the poverty population between 1959 and 1966 and patterns in the incidence of poverty (particularly in 1966). It began by discussing the "pronounced decline in the extent of poverty in the United States" during the period covered. It identified the source of the poverty measure that it was using (as the Social Security Administration, not Orshansky), but did not mention the War on Poverty. The report contained passing references to "the social welfare legislation enacted in the 1960's, with its strong emphasis on education and training and on job creation and job placement," and "rapid economic growth...the inauguration of manpower development and antipoverty programs, and...the steady rise in transfer payments of all kinds...."(76) However, these passing references were in the context of discussions of specific income or poverty patterns; they did not represent policy recommendations presented as stemming from the poverty trends and patterns discussed in the report. As with the June 1965 Census report discussed above, the content of the report seems to reflect a Census Bureau view of itself as a statistical agency rather than an agency advocating the adoption of specific policies.
In a February 1969 article on how poverty is measured (based on a paper presented to a 1968 seminar), Orshansky wrote, "The concept [of poverty] has to be limited by the purpose which is to be served by the definition. There is no particular reason to count the poor unless you are going to do something about them.... In the Social Security Administration, poverty was first defined in terms of the public or policy issue: To how many people, and to which ones, did we wish to direct policy concern.... A concept which can help influence public thinking must be socially and politically credible. We need benchmarks to distinguish the population group that we want to worry about. A benchmark should neither select a group so small, in relation to all the population, that it hardly seems to deserve a general program, nor so large that a solution to the problem appears impossible. For example, in the 1930's, President Roosevelt said, 'I see before me one-third of a Nation ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed.' This fraction is now part of our history. No matter how we get our number today, if more than a third of the population is called poor, it will lose value as a public reference point."(77)
In 1969, a federal interagency Poverty Level Review Committee which had been appointed in September 1968 decided to make two changes (relating to annual adjustment and the calculation of farm thresholds) in the SSA (Orshansky) poverty thresholds.(78) On August 12, 1969, the Census Bureau issued a report(79) describing and explaining the revision of the poverty thresholds. This Census Bureau report confined itself to the specific changes in the poverty thresholds and statistics based on the unrevised and revised thresholds; it did not discuss reasons for measuring poverty or uses of the poverty statistics.
On August 29, 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget) issued a document(80) which directed all federal Executive-Branch agencies to use the revised poverty statistics and thresholds (as issued by the Census Bureau) for statistical purposes. (It was this action that made the revised thresholds the federal government's official statistical poverty thresholds.) This document did not discuss reasons for measuring poverty, but did note that federal agencies had been using poverty statistics "in analytical and program planning work." It alluded to use of the poverty levels by federal programs for administrative purposes [to determine program eligibility] by stating that "nothing in this Circular should be construed as requiring that [the poverty levels] should be applied for such a purpose."
In December 1969, the Census Bureau issued a detailed report(81) on the poverty population under the revised definition. The report covered trends in the poverty population between 1959 and 1968, and characteristics of the poverty population in 1968. The report began by noting the decline in the poverty population from 1959 to 1968 (from 39 million to 25 million persons), but did not note until later that the 1968 poverty rate was "sharply reduced" from the 1959 level. The report noted that the original poverty measure had been developed by the Social Security Administration, and cited half a dozen of Orshansky's articles.(82) The report did not mention either the War on Poverty or any social programs of the 1960's. As with earlier Census Bureau reports discussed above, the content of this report seems to reflect a Census Bureau view of itself as a statistical agency rather than an agency advocating the adoption of specific policies.
[Go To Contents]
In 1974, in response to a legislative requirement, an interagency Poverty Studies Task Force was established under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to undertake an intensive review of the current poverty measure and various alternative measurement schemes. The Task Force's final report(83) was submitted to Congress in April 1976. This report thoroughly explored the issues involved in developing and revising poverty measures, gathering extensive supporting information which was presented in the report itself and in 17 Technical Papers. The report did not recommend specific changes in the current poverty measure.(84) The report's Forwarding Letter alluded to the use of the poverty measure in the fund allocation formula for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and also alluded to "administrative, analytical, statistical, and budgetary implications of alternative [poverty] measurement schemes."(85) The Executive Summary of the report noted that "[t]his country is concerned about poverty, its causes and correlates. It is willing to relieve the poverty of some of the poor and it wants to measure the effectiveness of its efforts to do so. None of this can be done without some idea of who is to be considered poor and who is not.... The Orshansky poverty definition is widely used to measure the nation's progress in reducing the extent of poverty. It is also used as a statistical tool to identify the target populations of government programs that help the financially needy and to evaluate the effectiveness of such programs. In recent years it has been adapted for administrative purposes." (In this connection it mentioned use of the poverty measure both in fund allocation formulas [the poverty thresholds] and in the determination of eligibility for programs [the poverty guidelines].) The Executive Summary concluded with a statement that "there is an advantage in the continued publication of an official statistical series of a poverty measure as an index of national achievement in reducing the extent of poverty."(86) The Introduction included a statement that "[p]overty can be defined in the abstract but whether someone is to be considered poor ultimately depends on who is asking the question and why he [sic] wants to know."(87) The first chapter of the report, in discussing arguments for using an official poverty measure, commented that "[d]etermining public policy, setting program goals, and evaluating program success all benefit from the external referent provided by an official [poverty] measure, even if the measure is altered to fit programs. It allows comparisons over time. Also, various Federally funded programs are required by law to identify their target populations in terms of low-income status or extent of poverty...." It noted that an official poverty measure could be used "as an index of national achievement, as a source of statistical data for the design and evaluation of programs, and as an administrative parameter in Federal programs."(88)
In January 1977, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a background paper(89) estimating the number of families in poverty (using the existing poverty thresholds without any alteration) under alternative definitions of income in particular, under a definition of income that counted major government noncash benefits as income at full government cost. (In June 1977, CBO issued a corrected version(90) of the background paper to correct a computer programming error.) The analysis had been requested in May 1976 by then-Senator Walter Mondale [D-Minn.]; Senators Edmund Muskie [D-Me.] and Henry Bellmon [R-Okla.] had also expressed interest in the preparation of the study. The paper noted that "[t]he 95th Congress will be considering legislation to reform social welfare programs. Important criteria for evaluating any new proposal are how it will affect families in poverty and what it costs. This paper provides the basis for such an evaluation by analyzing how the current income transfer programs lift families out of poverty.... During the past decade, public expenditures for social welfare programs have grown four-fold from $77.2 billion in 1965 to $286.5 billion in 1975. At the same time, according to official poverty statistics, the percentage of families in poverty has declined by only 30 percent." [The social welfare expenditures given are in current dollars, whereas poverty is measured by constant-dollar thresholds. Furthermore, not until the next paragraph was it noted that a majority of social welfare transfer programs are directed to the general population, not just the poor.] "An apparent paradox, this situation has led some observers to question the efficacy of the current system of public transfers. This dilemma is the result of two factors: the types of programs that account for most of the recent growth; and the inadequacies of the measures used to estimate families in poverty."(91) The analysis adjusted Current Population Survey income data for underreporting and nonreporting, took out [estimated] taxes, and used a microsimulation model to impute recipiency of major government noncash benefits (as well as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Supplemental Security Income) to families. On that basis, the analysis estimated that the number of family units in poverty in fiscal [sic] year 1976 was 10.7 million on the basis of money income only, but only 6.6 million after counting noncash benefits as income and taking out taxes.(92)
In March 1982, the Census Bureau issued Technical Paper 50(93) its first report on the valuation of noncash benefits and poverty. This "exploratory" report included a statement that "[t]his research report is guided by requests from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget...for such an analysis."(94) The report's first appendix was a "U.S. Senate statement" (more precisely, language inserted by the Senate Appropriations Committee into a 1980 report on the Committee's version of an appropriations bill) "expressing their concern over this issue."(95) The Senate Appropriations Committee had inserted this language at the request of Senator Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.)(96); a few months earlier, Senator Bellmon had put a statement(97) on valuing in-kind benefits into the Congressional Record. Accordingly, not only Technical Paper 50 but also the Senate Appropriations Committee language and Senator Bellmon's Congressional Record statement might be able to shed some light on the reasons for the "poverty" measures (actually different income measures applied to an unchanged poverty measure) in Technical Paper 50.
In his June 1980 Congressional Record statement, Senator Bellmon included the summary of a paper by William Hoagland which counted in-kind transfers as income for poverty measurement purposes, reducing the projected 1980 poverty count from 19 million persons (under the current income definition) to 13 million (not counting medical benefits as income) or 9 million (counting medical benefits as income).(98) The Senator commented that "...poverty is still a serious problem in this Nation, but it is not as big a problem as it once was.... Billions of dollars of benefits under current Government transfer programs are simply ignored in preparing official estimates of the numbers of people living in poverty. The growth of in-kind benefit programs makes it essential that we begin to take these benefits into account in measuring personal incomes. Otherwise, our decisions on tax and spending proposals affecting the poor and near-poor will be based on incomplete and potentially misleading information."
The September 1980 Senate Appropriations Committee language said that the Census Bureau's official poverty statistics "ignore billions of dollars of Government in-kind benefits," and mentioned the 9 million [projected] poverty count from the Hoagland paper. "The official statistics show no significant reduction in recent years in the incidence of poverty, although in-kind benefit programs have expanded greatly. The Committee considers it essential that official poverty statistics reflect, at the earliest possible date, the effects of in-kind benefits. Without such information Congress and the Executive Branch cannot be certain that Government transfer programs are properly targeted."
According to Technical Paper 50 itself, "[t]he purpose of this report is to examine several alternative methodologies for valuing public in-kind (noncash) transfers and to assess their effect on the size and composition of the official poverty population. The current definition of poverty used for statistical purposes...is based on money income and does...not include the value of in-kind transfers as income. Between 1965 and 1980, the market value of major in-kind transfers in the form of food...housing...and medical care (Medicare and Medicaid) grew from $2.2 billion to over $72.5 billion. In-kind transfers intended for the low-income population currently exceed cash public assistance by more than two to one. The Government's statistics on poverty have been criticized by a number of experts because they fail to account for noncash benefits.... The period between 1965 and 1979 saw sharply declining poverty rates during the first 5 years followed by a 10-year stretch in which poverty declined only slightly....using the present definition of income. Given these trends, widespread public interest concerning the disposition of these [in-kind public] transfer payments and their effect on the poor has arisen during the last decade.... Unfortunately, most research studies [on valuation of in-kind transfers] have not established the conceptual basis for their approach to valuing in-kind transfers, and the use of inappropriate measures of the value of noncash benefits may lead to incorrect policy decisions."(99) The report presented three different approaches to valuing selected government noncash benefits. For each approach, the report presented three estimates one valuing food and housing benefits only, one valuing food and housing benefits and medical benefits excluding institutional care, and one valuing food and housing benefits and medical benefits including institutional care; this was done because of "the importance of medical benefits, and...the special problems in valuing medical care benefits, especially institutional care benefits," as well as conceptual questions about the appropriateness of including medical benefits in the determination of poverty status.(100) The report made use of Current Population Survey data on actual receipt of or coverage by various noncash benefits, rather than using microsimulation models to impute recipiency of benefits to households.(101) Among the various valuation approaches and combinations of noncash benefits valued, the smallest reduction in counted poverty resulted from valuing food and housing benefits only under the "poverty budget share" approach (count reduced from 24 million persons in 1979 based on money income only to 21 million persons), and the largest reduction resulted from valuing food and housing benefits and medical benefits including institutional care under the "market value" approach (count reduced to 14 million persons).(102)
[Go To Contents]
The 1995 Report of the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance and Events Leading Up to It
In 1989-1990, there were several calls for a review or revision of the official poverty measure.(103) Among those calling for a revision of the poverty measure were the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of Congress and Patricia Ruggles of the Urban Institute.
In October 1989, a staff study(104) on alternative measures of poverty was prepared for the JEC. The staff study appears to have been at least in part a response to a new alternative poverty series released by the Census Bureau which recalculated the thresholds using an alternative price index but made no other changes in the poverty measure.(105) While the staff study was largely a review of several alternative poverty measures, it did include a comment that "the recent series of changes in poverty measurement introduced on a piecemeal basis by the Census Bureau highlight the need for a more complete and coordinated overhaul of the methodology we use to calculate poverty statistics."(106)
In April 1990, Ruggles published a book(107) in which she called for a revision of the poverty measure and presented several alternative poverty measures. In the book, Ruggles noted several reasons for having a poverty measure. "One fundamental reason for having a poverty measure is to allow comparisons of economic well-being across families, across population groups, across regions, and perhaps most of all, across time. These comparisons in turn may help us to judge the effects of economic growth and of public policies and to evaluate the need for public intervention of one type or another." But in the context of public policy, "the major purpose of a poverty measure is to allow us to assess the effects of our policies and programs and to identify people and groups whose most basic economic needs remain unmet." She also noted that the federal government uses its official poverty measure "in setting eligibility standards for certain public programs."(108)
In June 1990, the JEC held a hearing(109) on the measurement of poverty, while in October 1990 the House Select Committee on Hunger held a hearing(110) on redrawing the poverty line. In the June 1990 hearing, John Weicher (appearing "as a private citizen" rather than in his capacity as an Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development) described "three purposes in our society" that a poverty measure serves. "First and most important, it is a broad measure of economic and social well-being." Additionally, the poverty measure is used "to design low-income programs and...occasionally...to assess the effectiveness of various programs." (Under "designing programs," he noted that the poverty measure "is used to determine eligibility...and to allocate grant funds" based on poverty population data.)(111)
During the summer of 1990, JEC members worked successfully to get funds appropriated for the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council to study poverty measurement.(112) Under provisions of an appropriation bill passed in the fall of 1990, funds were provided for the NRC to make a study of the official U.S. poverty measure to provide a basis for a possible revision of the poverty measure. In 1992, the NRC's Committee on National Statistics appointed a Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance (comprising thirteen non-government academic experts) to conduct this study. The Panel published its report(113) of its study in May 1995. In the report, the Panel did not propose a specific set of dollar figures as poverty lines, but it did propose a new approach for developing an official poverty measure for the U.S., and it did present what it called a "reasonable range" of dollar figures within which it recommended the reference threshold for a four-person family should be set.(114) Describing the effects and uses of the poverty measure, the report noted that it is "an important social indicator that affects not only public perceptions of well-being in America, but also public policies and programs.... The poverty measure influences policy making...as an indicator of economic well-being to which policy makers, advocates, analysts, and the general public are sensitive. Trends in poverty rates over time and differences in poverty rates across population groups are often cited as reasons that a particular policy (or set of policies) is, or is not, needed.... The nation's understanding about and commitment to the alleviation of poverty has been informed for many years by the official measure of economic deprivation [poverty].... [The poverty measure] is important in its own right as a barometer of the extent to which there is a segment of U.S. society that lacks the means to obtain basic economic necessities; it is also important because it correlates highly with other aspects of deprivation, such as poor health and low educational levels." "The poverty measure also plays a role in evaluating government programs for low-income people and, more generally, the effects of government policies and economic growth on the distribution of income. In academia, there is a large literature on the characteristics of the poor, factors leading to poverty and other kinds of deprivation, and the effects of poverty on other behaviors and outcomes." In addition, "[s]ome government assistance programs for low-income people determine eligibility for benefits or services by comparing families' resources to the poverty thresholds or a multiple of them. Also, some formulas for allocating federal funds include state or local poverty rates as a factor."(115)
As noted at the beginning of this paper, the Poverty Panel's 1995 report has prompted a good deal of work to explore the possible implementation of the Panel's recommendations for a new poverty measure for the U.S.(116) The purpose of this historical review (besides simply adding to the historical record of poverty measurement) is to contribute to ongoing discussions about alternative poverty measures by examining reasons that have been given for measuring poverty in the United States in the context of public policy. A consideration of why we measure poverty may help guide us in making some of the decisions about how to measure poverty.
[Go To Contents]
2. Kathleen Short, Thesia Garner, David Johnson, and Patricia Doyle, Experimental Poverty Measures: 1990 to 1997, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-205, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1999. (Although the report's issuance date was given as June 1999, it was actually issued in July 1999.) [Back To Text]
3. [U.S.] Commission on Industrial Relations, Industrial Relations[:] Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress..., Vol. I, Washington, [U.S.] Government Printing Office, 1916, pp. 6-8, 13, 29-30, and 69. [Back To Text]
6. Committee on Economic Security, The Need for Economic Security in United States [chartbook], Washington, D.C., November 1934, Chart VII, "The Number of Families in Various Income Groups, 1929." [Back To Text]
7. Maurice Leven, Harold G. Moulton, and Clark Warburton, America's Capacity to Consume (Publication No. 56 of the Institute of Economics of the Brookings Institution), Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1934, p. 87. [Back To Text]
8. [U.S.] National Resources Committee, Consumer Incomes in the United States[:] Their Distribution in 1935-36, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1938, pp. 1, 7-9, and 95. [Back To Text]
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The [Second] Inaugural Address, 1937," pp. 29-30 in Harold L. Sheppard (editor), Poverty and Wealth in America (a New York Times Book), Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1970. [Back To Text]
11. White House Conference on Children in a Democracy[,] Washington, D.C.[,] January 18-20, 1940: Final Report (Children's Bureau Publication No. 272), Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1942, pp. ix, xiv, 3, and 6-9. [Back To Text]
12. For the WPA "maintenance" and "emergency" budgets, see Margaret Loomis Stecker, Quantity Bu[d]gets of Goods and Services Necessary for a Basic Maintenance Standard of Living and for Operation Under Emergency Conditions..., Research Bulletin [Series I, No. 21], Division of Social Research, Works Progress Administration, Washington, 1936; Margaret Loomis Stecker, Intercity Differences in Costs of Living in March 1935, 59 Cities, Research Monograph XII, Works Progress Administration, Division of Social Research, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937; and Gordon M. Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky: An Overview of (Unofficial) Poverty Lines in the United States from 1904 to 1965" (unpublished paper), October 1993 revised August 1997, pp. 33 and 36-38. (The latter paper is available on the WorldWide Web at <http://www.census.gov/hhes/povmeas/publications/povthres/fisher4.html>.) While the 1940 White House Conference staff used the maintenance budget as a measure of income inadequacy, note that it was the lower WPA budget the emergency budget that was conceptually equivalent to Orshansky's poverty thresholds. (For the latter point, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 33, 36, and 11, and footnote 159.) [Back To Text]
14. Committee on Long-Range Work and Relief Policies, Security, Work, and Relief Policies (Report...to the National Resources Planning Board), Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1942, pp. 153, 155, 569, 571-572, and 578-581; cf. also p. 163. [Back To Text]
17. Will Lissner, "New Rise in Grains Clouds Retail Food Price Outlook," New York Times, September 28, 1947, pp. 1 and 5; Senator Ralph E. Flanders, "Allocation of Meat" (January 19, 1948), pp. 292-293 in Congressional Record [annual bound version], Vol. 94, Part 1, Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1948; United States Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, High Prices of Consumer Goods[:] Report...Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 19[,] a Concurrent Resolution Establishing a Joint Committee to Investigate High Prices of Consumer Goods, Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1948, pp. 5-9; United States Senate, General Housing Legislation[:] Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency...on...Bills Pertaining to General Housing Legislation, Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1949, pp. 104-105 (February 3); and C. Hartley Grattan, "Senator Flanders: Intelligent Conservative," Harper's Magazine, Vol. 200, No. 1196, January 1950, pp. 85-86. [Back To Text]
18. "8,000,000 Incomes Under $1,000 in '48," New York Times, November 13, 1949, pp. 1 and 68; and J.A. O'Leary, "Senators Study $2,000 Income Families' Plight," Washington Star, November 13, 1949. For a brief discussion of this report and its $2,000 low-income line, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 41-42. [Back To Text]
19. United States Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Low-Income Families and Economic Stability[ ]Materials on the Problem of Low-Income Families Assembled by the Staff of the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families..., Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1949, p. 1. [Back To Text]
21. United States Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Low-Income Families and Economic Stability[:] Report of the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families...Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 26, Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1950, pp. 1, 4-5, 9-12, and 16. See also Harold B. Hinton, "Low-Income Group Held a Vital Field," New York Times, February 26, 1950, p. 49; and "Subcommittee Charts Broad Program to Aid Low-Income Families," Washington Star, February 26, 1950. [Back To Text]
22. "Subcommittee on Low-Income Families," p. 7 in U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Joint Economic Report[ ]Report of the Joint Committee on the Economic Report on the January 1955 Economic Report of the President... (84th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Report No. 60), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955; and Rep. Augustine B. Kelley (Pennsylvania), "Chronic Low Income and Its Effect on Unemployment" (May 18, 1955), pp. 6540-6541 in Congressional Record [annual bound version], Vol. 101, Part 5, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955. [Back To Text]
23. Joseph A. Loftus, "Number of Poor in Slight Drop," New York Times, October 30, 1955, p. 65; and J.A. O'Leary, "Chronically Poor Are Still With Us Despite Seven Years of Prosperity," Washington Star, October 30, 1955. For a brief discussion of this report and its low-income line, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), p. 44. [Back To Text]
24. U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Characteristics of the Low-Income Population and Related Federal Programs[ ]Selected Materials Assembled by the Staff of the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families..., Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1955, pp. 1-4. [Back To Text]
26. United States Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, A Program for the Low-Income Population at Substandard Levels of Living[:] Report...to the Congress... (84th Congress, 2d Session, Senate Report No. 1311), Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1956, pp. 2, 4-6, and 8-14. See also "Aid to Poor Asked by Congress Unit," New York Times, January 2, 1956, p. 10. [Back To Text]
27. Robert J. Lampman, "The Low Income Population and Economic Growth" (Study Paper No. 12), pp. 1-36 in United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Study Papers Nos. 12 and 13[,] The Low Income Population and Economic Growth...The Adequacy of Resources for Economic Growth in the United States...Materials Prepared in Connection With the Study of Employment, Growth, and Price Levels... (December 16, 1959), Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1959. For a brief discussion of this paper and its low-income line, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 47-48. [Back To Text]
28. Study Papers Nos. 12 and 13..., p. v; and Lampman, "The Low Income Population...", pp. 4 and 24-28. See also the comments on this point on p. 47 of Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision). For Galbraith's assertion that "modern poverty...is not efficiently remedied by a general and tolerably well-distributed advance in income," see John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, New York, New American Library, 1964 [original edition published in 1958], p. 254 (Chapter XXIII, Section III). [Back To Text]
31. Although sources differ on this point, it appears that Michael Harrington's The Other America and the other books may have influenced Kennedy less directly than indirectly, through a 1963 review article by Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker. (See Sar A. Levitan, The Great Society's Poor Law[:] A New Approach to Poverty, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, p. 13; and Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare, New York, Pantheon Books, 1989, p. 82. For other readings of the record, see Michael Harrington, The New American Poverty, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 4-5 and 17-18; and James T. Patterson, America's Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 99.) In addition to Harrington's book, Macdonald also reviewed books by Kolko and Morgan et al. and a "bulky pamphlet" by the Conference on Economic Progress. (See Dwight Macdonald, "Our Invisible Poor," New Yorker, Vol. 38, No. 48, January 19, 1963, pp. 82-132.) [Back To Text]
32. Michael Harrington, The Other America[:] Poverty in the United States, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1966 [original edition published in 1962]. For a brief review of the poverty lines discussed in the book, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 50-51. For the article out of which the book grew, see Michael Harrington, "Our Fifty Million Poor[:] Forgotten Men of the Affluent Society," Commentary, Vol. 28, No. 1, July 1959, pp. 19-27. [Back To Text]
39. Poverty And Deprivation..., pp. 2-3, 8-15, 19-22, 29, and 93. For a further discussion of the poverty and deprivation lines and other income levels used in this study, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 51-52. For versions of this poverty line used in earlier CEP publications, see Conference on Economic Progress, Toward Full Employment and Full Production[:] How to End Our National Economic Deficits, Washington, D.C., July 1954, p. 32; and Conference on Economic Progress, Consumption[:] Key to Full Prosperity[ ]Toward Rising Living Standards..., Washington, D.C., May 1957, pp. 4 and 30-33. [Back To Text]
41. Gabriel Kolko, Wealth and Power in America[:] An Analysis of Social Class and Income Distribution, New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1962. For the article out of which the book grew, see Gabriel Kolko, "The American 'Income Revolution,'" Dissent, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 1957, pp. 35-55. [Back To Text]
45. May 1, 1963, Memorandum for the President [John F. Kennedy] from Walter W. Heller, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Subject: Progress and Poverty (Theodore C. Sorensen Papers: Subject files - 1961-64, "Council of Economic Advisers. 5/1/63-9/23/63," Box 31, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library). [Back To Text]
46. For that role, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days[:] John F. Kennedy in the White House, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965, pp. 1009-1012; James L. Sundquist, Politics and Policy[:] The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years, Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1968, pp. 135-137; Sar A. Levitan, The Great Society's Poor Law[:] A New Approach to Poverty, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, pp. 13-18; and Patterson, America's Struggle against Poverty..., pp. 134-137. [Back To Text]
47. Advisory Committee on Standard Budget Research, "Report of the Advisory Committee on Standard Budget Research," Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Prices and Living Conditions, June 1963, pp. 2-4. [Back To Text]
49. For a discussion of the July 1963 article and its genesis, see Gordon M. Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds and Their Subsequent History as the Official U.S. Poverty Measure" (unpublished paper), May 1992 partially revised September 1997, pp. 2, 11-12, and 14-17. (This paper is available on the WorldWide Web at <http://www.census.gov/hhes/povmeas/publications/orshansky.html>.) [Back To Text]
53. Chapter 2, pp. 55-84 in Economic Report of the President Transmitted to the Congress January 1964 Together With the Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1964. For further information about the poverty line that the Johnson CEA used in this chapter, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 54-56. [Back To Text]
58. The $3,000 figure was applied to all families of two or more persons. The January 1964 CEA report implied that $1,500 might be used as a poverty line for unrelated individuals, but did not make an explicit choice (see "The Problem of Poverty...", pp. 59 and 79). By March 1964, the CEA had made the selection of the $1,500 figure explicit; see Walter W. Heller, "Statement of...[the] Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers" (March 17, 1964), p. 26 in U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor, Economic Opportunity Act of 1964[:] Hearings Before the Subcommittee on the War on Poverty Program...on H.R. 10440[,] A Bill to Mobilize the Human and Financial Resources of the Nation to Combat Poverty in the United States[ ]Part 1. [Back To Text]
59. For a discussion of the genesis of the January 1965 article, see Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), pp. 19-21. For a detailed discussion of the methodology that Orshansky used in this article to develop the poverty thresholds, see pp. 3-9 of the same paper. [Back To Text]
64. Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), p. 23. Specifically, OEO adopted the lower of Orshansky's two sets of poverty thresholds the set based on the economy food plan. [Back To Text]
66. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 45, Low-Income Families and Unrelated Individuals in the United States: 1963, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 18, 1965. [Back To Text]
67. In April 1969, the Census Bureau issued a report on workers with earnings below $3,000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 58, Year-Round Workers with Low Earnings in 1966, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, April 4, 1969). However, the $3,000 figure used in this report was derived as an approximation of the annualized minimum wage during the latter part of the 1960's (p. 1), not as a version of the Johnson CEA's family poverty line. [Back To Text]
70. Economic Report of the President Transmitted to the Congress January 1965 Together With the Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1965, pp. 162-163. [Back To Text]
71. Economic Report of the President Transmitted to the Congress January 1966 Together With the Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1966, pp. 110-114. For a few further details on the use of these poverty statistics by the CEA, see Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), p. 23. [Back To Text]
72. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-23, No. 17, Special Census Survey of the South and East Los Angeles Areas: November 1965, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, March 23, 1966. For the final report on this survey, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-23, No. 18, Characteristics of the South and East Los Angeles Areas: November 1965, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 28, 1966. [Back To Text]
75. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 54, The Extent of Poverty in the United States: 1959 to 1966, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, May 31, 1968. [Back To Text]
76. The Extent of Poverty...1959 to 1966, pp. 1, 2, 4, and 8. On p. 8, the report referred to "the poverty index developed by the Social Security Administration," but did cite two of Orshansky's articles as sources for a more detailed description. [Back To Text]
78. For a discussion of the 1969 revision of the poverty thresholds, the events that led up to it, and the 1969 adoption of the revised thresholds as the official federal statistical definition of poverty, see Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), pp. 24-33. [Back To Text]
79. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-23, No. 28, Revision in Poverty Statistics, 1959 to 1968, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, August 12, 1969. [Back To Text]
80. Bureau of the Budget Circular No. A-46, Transmittal Memorandum No. 9, August 29, 1969, transmitting Exhibit L, "Definition of Poverty for Statistical Purposes"; see also Lawrence N. Bloomberg, "Definition of Poverty for Statistical Purposes," Statistical Reporter, No. 70-3, Office of Statistical Policy, U.S. Bureau of the Budget, September 1969, p. 37. (For the present version of the material in Exhibit L, see Statistical Policy Directive No. 14 ("Definition of Poverty for Statistical Purposes") on p. 35 of the Commerce Department's Statistical Policy Handbook (May 1978). The text of Statistical Policy Directive No. 14 was also published in the Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 87, May 4, 1978, p. 19269.) [Back To Text]
81. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 68, Poverty in the United States: 1959 to 1968, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, December 31, 1969. [Back To Text]
83. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, The Measure of Poverty[:] A Report to Congress as Mandated by The Education Amendments of 1974, Washington, D.C., [U.S. Government Printing Office,] April 1976. [Back To Text]
89. Congressional Budget Office, Poverty Status of Families Under Alternative Definitions of Income (Background Paper No. 17), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, January 13, 1977. See also Peter Milius, "Study Finds 50% Fewer Poor People[:] Non-Cash Benefits Counted as Income In Report for Hill," Washington Post, January 16, 1977, pp. A1 and A17. [Back To Text]
90. Congressional Budget Office, Poverty Status of Families Under Alternative Definitions of Income (Background Paper No. 17 (Revised)), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1977 (Reprinted October 1977). "The revision was necessary to correct a computer programming error that resulted in a systematic underestimate of the number of families in poverty under all definitions of income. Although all of the poverty incidence figures were affected, the correction of this error does not affect the findings of the earlier report" (p. iii). [Back To Text]
91. Background Paper No. 17 (Revised), pp. iii and xiii; see also pp. 1-3. Note that on p. xiii of the background paper, John Korbel (author of the background paper, per p. iii) seems to have used an updated version of a piece of "floating rhetoric" used several years earlier by conservative Edgar Browning: "Total social welfare expenditures increased from $77.2 billion in 1965 to $215 billion in 1973, or by about 180 percent. Despite this vast effort, the number of people officially defined as poor fell by less than a third, from 33.2 million to 23 million" (Edgar K. Browning, Redistribution and the Welfare System (Evaluative Studies 22), Washington, D.C., American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, July 1975, p. 7). [Back To Text]
93. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Technical Paper 50, Alternative Methods for Valuing Selected In-Kind Transfer Benefits and Measuring Their Effect on Poverty (by Timothy M. Smeeding), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, March 1982. [Back To Text]
95. For the quoted description of the Senate Appropriations Committee language, see Technical Paper 50, p. 1, footnote 2. For the appendix in question, see "Appendix A. U.S. Senate Statement: 'Data Collection and [sic] Poverty Level,'" p. 105 of Technical Paper 50. For the original source of the Senate Committee language, see U.S. Senate, Committee on Appropriations, "Data Collection on Poverty Level," pp. 33-34, Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill, 1981 [Report to accompany H.R. 7584], Senate Report No. 96-949, 96th Congress, 2d Session, Washington, D.C., September 16, 1980. For similar language included in the conference report by the House-Senate conference committee on the appropriations bill, see U.S. House of Representatives, "BUREAU OF THE CENSUS[:] Salaries and Expenses," pp. 8-9, Making Appropriations for the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies [Conference Report to accompany H.R. 7584], House Report No. 96-1472, 96th Congress, 2d Session, Washington, D.C., November 20, 1980. Technical Paper 50 did not include the text of the Office of Management and Budget request (a letter from an OMB official to the Chief Economist of the Commerce Department the "Cutter..." bibliographic entry on p. 157 of Technical Paper 50). [Back To Text]
96. Gary D. Bass (Executive Director, OMB Watch), pp. 5 and 14 in U.S. House of Representatives, Census Bureau Measurement of Noncash Benefits[:] Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Census and Population of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service..., Serial No. 99-51, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986. [Back To Text]
97. Senator Henry Bellmon [R-Okla.], "The Current Effectiveness of Current Federal Government Transfer Programs in Reducing Poverty" [Additional Statement June 12, 1980], Congressional Record, Vol. 126, Part 11 (96th Congress, 2d Session), pp. 14450-14451, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office. Note that in 1971, Senator Bellmon had put a statement into the Congressional Record criticizing the poverty measure for not counting assets or income received from sale of property, loans, gifts, and lump-sum inheritances and insurance payments. (See Senator Henry Bellmon, "Need for a Meaningful Poverty Definition" [Additional Statement May 19, 1971], Congressional Record, Vol. 117, Part 12 (92d Congress, First Session), p. 15860, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1971.) [Back To Text]
98. For the published version of Hoagland's paper, see G. William Hoagland, "The Effectiveness of Current Transfer Programs in Reducing Poverty," pp. 53-75 in Paul M. Sommers (editor), Welfare Reform in America[:] Perspectives and Prospects, Boston, Kluwer. Nijhoff Publishing, 1982. Hoagland projected poverty figures for Fiscal Year rather than calendar year 1980. He adjusted Current Population Survey data for income underreporting and nonreporting presumably the main reason for his surprisingly low poverty figure under the current income definition. The actual calendar year 1980 poverty count (under the current income definition, without adjustment for income underreporting and nonreporting, and before minor revisions in the poverty definition) was 29.3 million persons. [Back To Text]
101. Technical Paper 50, pp. 4, 92, and 94. For a discussion of how microsimulation models apparently overestimate noncash benefit recipiency in general and multiple benefit recipiency in particular, see Timothy M. Smeeding, "Estimating In-Kind Income Using the CPS: Survey vs. Pure Microsimulation Approaches," American Statistical Association[:] 1981 Proceedings of the Section on Survey Research Methods, pp. 360-365. [Back To Text]
103. For accounts of these calls, see Richard J. Margolis, "The Arithmetic of Poverty," New Leader, Vol. 73, No. 6, April 16, 1990, pp. 14-15; Julie Kosterlitz, "Measuring Misery," National Journal, Vol. 22, No. 31, August 4, 1990, pp. 1892-1896; and Jason DeParle, "In Rising Debate on Poverty, The Question: Who Is Poor?", New York Times, September 3, 1990, pp. 1 and 10. Cf. also Spencer Rich, "Drawing the Line on Poverty[:] Census Bureau Measurement Sparks Criticism From Many Quarters," Washington Post, October 30, 1989, p. A13. [Back To Text]
104. [Patricia Ruggles unattributed], "Alternative Measures of Poverty," A Staff Study Prepared for The Joint Economic Committee, October 18, 1989. The 22-page study was an earlier version of material that appeared in Ruggles' 1990 book [Back To Text].
105. For the first release of this particular alternative series, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 166, Money Income and Poverty Status in the United States: 1988 (Advance Data From the March 1989 Current Population Survey), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1989, pp. 2, 10, 12-13, and 127-153. See also the Spencer Rich article cited in footnote 103. [Back To Text]
107. Patricia Ruggles, Drawing the Line: Alternative Poverty Measures and Their Implications for Public Policy, Washington, D.C., Urban Institute Press, 1990. See also Patricia Ruggles, "The Poverty Line Too Low for the 90's," New York Times, April 26, 1990, p. A31; Spencer Rich, "Economist Says Poverty Line Should Be Higher[:] Revised Formula Would Take Into Account Rising Social Standards for a Decent Life," Washington Post, May 4, 1990, p. A25; "U.S. Poverty Measurements Outdated, Policy Analyst Asserts in New Book," Economic Opportunity Report, Vol. 25, No. 19, May 14, 1990, p. 147; and Daniel B. Radner, "Book Review: Drawing the Line," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 12, December 1990, pp. 31-34. [Back To Text]
108. Ruggles, Drawing the Line..., pp. 1 and 3; cf. pp. xv and 163. She had included similar comments on uses of the official U.S. poverty measure in "Alternative Measures of Poverty," p. 3. [Back To Text]
109. United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Measuring Poverty[:] Hearing... (One Hundred First Congress, Second Session, Senate Hearing 101-971, June 14, 1990), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990. See also United States Congress, Joint Economic Committee, "Is the Official Definition of Poverty the Best One?" (Press Release), June 7, 1990. [Back To Text]
110. U.S. House of Representatives, Redrawing the Poverty Line: Implications for Fighting Hunger and Poverty in America[ ]Hearing Before the Select Committee on Hunger...Held in Washington, DC, October 4, 1990 (One Hundred First Congress, Second Session, Serial No. 101-24), Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991. [Back To Text]
112. An August 1990 news story noted that "[k]ey members" of the JEC had gotten funds for this purpose included in a House appropriations bill; see Kosterlitz (cited in footnote 103), p. 1892. Describing the origin of its study, the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance wrote, "the Joint Economic Committee of Congress initiated an independent, in-depth review of the U.S. poverty measure, working with the House Subcommittee on Census, Statistics, and Postal Personnel. Funds for a study by the National Research Council (NRC) of the official poverty measure and alternatives to it were appropriated to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor" (Citro and Michael (cited in the immediately following footnote), p. xv). [Back To Text]
114. For further details on the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance and its report, see Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), pp. 47-50. For additional information, see Gordon Fisher, "An Overview of Developments Since 1995 Relating to a Possible New U.S. Poverty Measure (plus a Summary of the Recommendations of the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance)," October 1998 revised May 14, 1999. (This paper is available on the WorldWide Web at <http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/povmeas/papers/fisher.html>.) [Back To Text]
Last updated: 12/16/05