3 things the U.S. doesn’t include in poverty measurement

One of the showstoppers from the 1996 musical Rent deliberates ways to count a year in the life. In minutes? (525,600, for those who don’t know the song.) Handshakes? Cups of coffee?

That song was in my head as I was thinking about the way that the United States measures  poverty and how much it shapes our understanding of it.  The U.S. measures poverty in one straightforward simple way: income. This refers to a family’s income before taxes, but not non-cash benefits like food stamps. There are three things that the U.S. doesn’t include when measuring poverty, but are included in other country’s measures:

  • Education. The number of the household members who have completed a certain level of schooling. If children between grades 1-8 are in school school.
  • Health – If any child has died. If any adults/children are malnourished.
  • Standard of Living – If the household has no electricity, doesn’t have access to clean water within a 30 minute walk from home, doesn’t have an improved toilet, if they have a dirt, sand, or dung floor, if they cook with wood, charcoal or dung, or if they don’t own more than one of: radio, TV, telephone, bike, or motorbike, and do not own a car or tractor.

These three categories were unveiled in 2010 by the U.N. and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative as the Multidimensional Poverty Index, created to replace the Human Poverty Index. It is, as the name suggests, a measure of poverty using the three dimensions mentioned above and is used by 140 developing countries.

If one looks at them closely, they seem inappropriate for more developed nations, at least in their current iteration. However, if these categories are considered in the context of the first world, they may retain some value.

  • Education – Has anyone in the household graduated from high school?
  • Health – Does the household have access to nutritious food? It’s no secret that obesity is a growing problems, in large part because of food deserts and lack of access to quality and nourishing food.
  • Standard of living – Are the utilities on in the house? Are there rodents or other vermin in the apartment? Is the environment toxic from such things as asbestos or lead paint? Does the household have access to transportation? (For example: owning a vehicle/bicycle, or being within a 30 minute walk to public transportation.)

Should the US change the way it measures poverty? I think it should, though maybe not in the way outlined above.  By measuring poverty in a more multidimensional way, efforts to reduce it may become more effective. A side effect of this may be that the national discussion about poverty will change.  Right now, poor people are “others,” removed from us. Its easier to close our minds to how a problem might be alleviated when we don’t see it. What if those “others” are not the minority, but those living among us?

What do you think?

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