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


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

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.

4.  [U.S.] Commission on Industrial Relations, p. 22.