June 30, 2009

TAKE ACTION: Support The Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009

UPDATE 8/18/09: Just learned of an online petition in support of HR 2909 at Change.org’s “Poverty in America” section. Take a minute to make a difference!

Introduction: Measuring Poverty

Finally after years of waiting for a new approach, Rep. Jim McDermott (D- WA) has introduced a bill providing for one year to plan and recommend a new measurement of poverty.   The U.S.  has been measuring poverty in the same manner since the early 1960s. The existing poverty determinations are based upon a stagnant and outdated method that fails to meet the needs of those that are truly impoverished—our fellow Americans that on a daily basis have to make difficult choices between food, shelter and medical care.   Decisions relating to poverty need to be made based upon the changing economy and public policy.  In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences recommended a change in the metrics based on needs rather than deprivation.   With this Act, the U.S. takes a 21st century approach to measuring poverty that is fiscally sound, data driven and fair across our country.

Some critics may ask why has it taken so long; will a 15 year-old measurement work today; will it cost us more; will this lead to a real plan to end hunger in our country over the next decade?     I can’t answer these questions but this administration and Congress are ready to make change.  Here is what I have learned about Rep. McDermott’s Bill and seek your support for any amendments, if appropriate, passage and appropriations for implementation.

Name of Bill:  The Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009 (the “Act”) 

This Act refers to the current poverty index or threshold as the Traditional Poverty Measure.  The Traditional Poverty Measure is based upon 1960s information that has been annually adjusted for inflation.  The Traditional Poverty Measure was an absolute measure and determined the poverty threshold based on the data that 1/3 of income was spent on food and chose the economy food plan (the least costly of four nutritionally adequate food plans designed by the Department of Agriculture) for its dollar amount….food …yes that is it.  No other real measures were taken into account.  This Measure was the basis for all forms of assistance including food, shelter, utility assistance and medical care.  More importantly one has to fall below the Measure to qualify for assistance.  We have been overlooking or providing aid to those that may not need it by failing to determine whether the basic needs are being met for American families.

Under the Act, the Modern Poverty Threshold, a more accurate approach to measuring poverty, is sought.  The Modern Poverty Threshold will include “Market Income” including such things as income, clothing and shelter, as well as, adjustments for expenses, such as medical, childcare and transportation expenses.  Also, included in the Modern Poverty Threshold is “Disposable Income.” Disposable Income includes taxes, adjustments for tax credits, food, shelter and utility assistance received from state and federal agencies. Finally, geographic adjustments will be allowed based upon the locale in which a recipient (urban, rural and suburban) lives. Thus, the distribution of funds will be more fairly allocated based upon the true cost of living in that community.  So, for example, a family living in a large metropolitan city may be eligible for more dollars with the acknowledgement that basic needs cost more there than in a small rural area.  Further, with this approach those in need of assistance will be able to obtain the assistance in the appropriate form.  Those in need will not have to sell their food stamps in order to pay other basic necessities.

The Modern Poverty Threshold hopefully will not become dormant or obsolete.  The Act also includes the ability to objectively review and reassess the effects of the Modern Poverty Threshold no less than every five years.


Rep. McDermott’s Bill is already gaining support as 5 others have joined in to co-sponsor.  They are:  Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO); Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT); Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D=NY); Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rep. Fortney Pete Stark (D-CA).

Next Steps

The Bill has been referred to two Congressional Committees:  the Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  These committees will hold hearings to evaluate and vote whether to recommend for passage.  Please join me in writing and faxing letters to your Senators and Congressmen to seek their support of this long-overdue legislation. A sample letter follows:

Dear Congressman ____________________ OR Senator_______________________:

I am writing to seek your support of HR 2909, The Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009 introduced by your colleague Rep. Jim McDermott. The Act calls for a more accurate approach to measuring poverty. Following the National Academy of Sciences recommendations the measurement will take into account a variety of metrics to determine poverty and it will allow for the fair and fiscally reasonable distribution of funding to those based upon basic needs and not just the 1960’s cost of food as annually adjusted. This Bill will allow for the plan to take affect within a year of passage.  We need to ensure that all members of our community, city, state and nation are obtaining their basic needs including food, shelter and medical care.  We cannot allow 36 million Americans to continue to live on verge of hunger.



Alternatively, you can call your Congressmen and Senators at either their local offices or their Washington, DC offices.  A sample text follows:

Hello, my name is ________________ and I live in the State of _________  and in the ___District.  I would like to voice my support of HR 2909 The Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009.  I believe this Bill will ensure that all members of our community, city, state and nation are obtaining their basics needs including food, shelter and medical care through adjusting the way we measure poverty.  We cannot allow 36 million Americans to continue to live on verge of hunger.

Irene Schild Caminer is an attorney in Chicago and a MAZON supporter.