How Do, and Should, We Measure Poverty? Insights from Three Professors

July 26, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the House of Representatives broke with nearly half a century of precedent in gutting a farm bill that not only America’s farmers but America’s most vulnerable children depend on.  On July 11th, a majority (all Republicans) voted to maintain farm subsidies while completely eliminating food stamps (these days officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).

Meanwhile, House Republicans have been working on a bill to finance labor and health programs that, while it protects some of the White House’s priorities like Head Start, cuts educational grants for poor students by 16 percent. Education is, of course, a path out of poverty.

The fate of these programs still isn’t clear because they are part of a Republican strategy to slash spending in many priority areas of for President Obama’s agenda unless Obamacare is stripped of money this fall.

Nevertheless, the time seems ripe for members of the social work community to shift the focus away from partisan politics over to the needs of the impoverished, whose numbers are growing at an alarming rate. A recent AP survey showed that as many as four out of five U.S. adults face joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on on social welfare programs for at least parts of their lives.

Just over a year ago, three CUSSW professors addressed the topic of poverty measures both in the United States and the developing world, at the invitation of the Columbia Alumni Association. In this post, we present the audio files for each of their presentations, as well as for the Q & A that followed.

JANE WALDFOGEL: Why the supplemental poverty measure provides a more effective picture

Key points:

  • The official poverty measure, which has been with us since the 1960s, fails to capture the effects of public policy.
  • The supplemental poverty measure, which draws on the recommendations of a 1995 National Academy of Sciences report, creates a more complex statistical picture incorporating additional items, and is more transparent about the effects of public policy.
  • In the set of estimates for the research supplemental poverty measure released in experimental form by the Census Bureau in fall 2011, we see that food stamps alone lower the poverty rate for families with kids nationally by three percentage points.
  • NYC Mayor Bloomberg, who is “all about measurement,” has pioneered the use of the supplemental poverty measure to measure the impact of his anti-poverty programs in the city.
  • According to the SPM, poverty in NYC is now at 23 percent, and the food stamp program lowers poverty in the city by as much as five percentage points.


IRWIN GARFINKEL: CUSSW’s work on measuring the impact of anti-poverty measures on New York City

Key points:

  • “The SPM gets us closer to the truth. It’s not perfect, but it gets us closer.”
  • The Robin Hood Foundation has asked him and Professor Waldfogel to assist with measuring whether their programs for New York City (eg, ) are having any impact.
  • With the help of CU statistician Andrew Gelman, the CUSSW team is putting together a “snowball sample” to follow for at least two years, which they will “use to learn things that will help us tie down before and after in terms of using social services.”


NEERAJ KAUSHAL: Lessons developing countries can learn from China on reducing poverty

Key points:

  • “It is an immense challenge to measure poverty across countries and to monitor progress over time….The challenge in this kind of work is to have consistent estimates…”
  • Income poverty doesn’t tell us about people’s acess to education, health care and food—which are also important to human well-being.
  • The example of China teaches us that high sustained growth over a long period is important to eliminate poverty.
  • China has also invested heavily in education.
  • Women’s employment in China is probably the highest in the world: 55-56%.