Reasons for Measuring Poverty in the United States in the Context of Public Policy — A Historical Review, 1916-1995. Introduction


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 report1 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 report2 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.")

1.  Constance F. Citro and Robert T. Michael (editors), Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995.

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.)