Census Bureau: U.S. too poor to develop supplemental poverty measure

Posted by Ezra Glenn on October 17, 2011
Census, News/Commentary

Last year, I was excited to learn that Census Bureau was beginning work to establish a new, supplemental poverty measure, to address long-standing problems with the official statistic.  The Bureau was quick to ensure us that the official poverty measure would continue to be used to establish eligibility for government programs, and “will remain the definitive statistical measure,” but based on their elegant description of the new measure as “a more complex and refined statistic,” both the data fiends and the poverty scholars started to get excited.  I was reminded of a great story by Barry Bluestone, Director of the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University: as he tells it, while trying to explain about different ways to measure unemployment to a reporter, he became frustrated at the press’s unwillingness to delve into the complexity of these numbers.  When the reporter explained, “I can’t print three different numbers for unemployment—people won’t follow that,” Bluestone retorted, “Have you ever read your paper?,” and went on to point out how almost every section had multiple measures: weather (temperature, wind-chill, humidity index), business (high, low, 52-week average), sports (batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, OBP, and so on).

Unfortunately, it appears that the supplemental poverty measure is the latest good idea to fall victim to budget cuts: in a recent update (which received significantly less press than the original release), the Bureau reports:

Since the FY 2011 federal budget did not include the funding requested by the President for the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) initiative, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not currently have the resources necessary to move the Supplemental Poverty Measure from research mode to production mode. Without these additional resources, the September 2011 release date for the Supplemental Poverty Measure estimates suggested in the Interagency Technical Working Group document is not feasible.

The update goes on to note the useful ground-work that was undertaken over the past 18 months on the topic, including a few conferences and some very useful reports (see the Census Bureau page collecting Working Papers and Conference Presentations), and promising some modified approach to yield at least partial results in the near future, but overall you gotta figure it’s pretty bad when we can’t even afford to measure how poor we’ve become.

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