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Some Popular Beliefs About the U.S. Poverty Line as Reflected in Inquiries from the Public

by Gordon M. Fisher, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[The Sociologist [Newsletter of the District of Columbia Sociological Society], Vol. 30, No. 2, October 1996 [p. 6]]

I work as a program analyst at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Since 1982, one of my major job responsibilities has been to issue the annual update of the HHS poverty guidelines — the administrative version of the U.S. poverty measure, used in determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. (The other version of the poverty measure — the Census Bureau poverty thresholds — is used for calculating the number of persons in poverty.)

In connection with issuing the poverty guidelines, I receive and respond to numerous inquiries from the public about the guidelines and related subjects. In 1995, I received 1,058 such public inquiries.

Questions that inquirers often ask and comments that they often make provide evidence of several popular beliefs about the poverty line. (I use the general term "poverty line" in this context because the people expressing these beliefs are frequently unaware of the rather obscure distinction between the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines.)

One common belief (among people who do not know that the poverty line was originally calculated as "three times the cost of the economy food plan") is that the poverty line was developed as a "market basket," with so many dollars allowed for food, so many dollars for housing, so many dollars for clothing, and so on. Even a Ph.D. economist (and Internet user) from a well-known university recently asked me what was the "current composition of the poverty basket." In most cases, I doubt that this belief reflects specific familiarity with either the Labor Department's pre-1982 family budgets or the process by which some states have developed need standards for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program; instead, I think that it simply reflects a widespread feeling that a "market basket" is the most obvious or reasonable way to develop a poverty line.

Another common belief is that there is a separate poverty line for every state. In some cases this belief may be encouraged by the fact that there are separate poverty guidelines (although not separate poverty thresholds) for two states — Alaska and Hawaii. Occasionally it may reflect knowledge that different states have widely varying AFDC eligibility and benefit levels. More often, however, it seems to reflect a strong public perception that there are significant geographic differentials in the "cost of living" (New York City and rural Mississippi being common polar examples cited), combined with the prominent role of states in the American federal system; the resulting popular conclusion is that — at least for the poor — there ought to be different figures for different states. (Note that Mollie Orshansky — who originated the poverty thresholds in the 1960's — has several times pointed out that people generally do not believe that there ought to be separate state figures for such middle-class benefits as Social Security, veterans benefits, and federal income tax exemptions.)

A third common belief is that the poverty guidelines are used to determine eligibility for the AFDC program. Since the poverty guidelines are (for all practical purposes) not used to determine eligibility for AFDC, I make a point of mentioning that fact when I am describing the poverty guidelines to inquirers; many of them express surprise at hearing that fact.

Yet another common belief — or, more precisely, a common reaction — occurs when I tell inquirers the dollar value of the poverty guidelines for various family sizes. If the inquirers are calling to get the latest figures for a program that they administer, they generally just take the figures down without reacting to them. However, other inquirers — e.g., those who just want to know what the poverty line is for an average family — often react by saying such things as "Oh, that's so low! I don't see how anybody could live on that!" I don't recall anybody ever saying, "Why, that figure is too high! They ought to be able to get along on half that much!" I certainly realize that the inquirers who call me are not a randomly selected or representative sample of the general population. However, it is interesting to note that when the Gallup Organization asked a nationally representative sample of Americans in 1989 what figure they would use as the poverty line for a family of four, the average answer given by the respondents was 24 percent higher than the current official poverty threshold. (See William O'Hare, Taynia Mann, Kathryn Porter, and Robert Greenstein, Real Life Poverty in America: Where the American Public Would Set the Poverty Line (A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Families USA Foundation Report), July 1990.)

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not represent the position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)