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How does the United States define poverty?

Economists and financial experts are struggling to define what actually constitutes chronic poverty.
Economists and financial experts are struggling to define what actually constitutes chronic poverty.
Aleš Kartal, Pixabay/Creative Commons

While some politicians are making the fight against poverty in the United States a cornerstone of their campaigns, some economists and financial experts are struggling to define what actually constitutes chronic poverty.

That struggle spurred an examination of national statistics on impoverished residents and their lifestyles by Harvard professor Kathryn J. Edin and University of Michigan professor H. Luke Shaefer.

In a new book called “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Edin and Shaefer examined what they believe to be a dramatic increase of American families living in poverty between 1996 and 2012.

The authors looked at American poverty over the years and followed numerous families as they navigated through different channels of federal assistance and irregular means of income. In their research, the authors found that 4.3 percent of U.S. households with kids said they lived on "less than $2 a day per person for at least one month during 2011. They found that in 1996, only 1.7 percent of heads of households reported making $2 or less a day.

In a review in Wednesday’s New York Review of Books, Harvard professor of social policy Christopher Jencks praised the book for being “convincing and deeply troubling,” but he also addressed two potential flaws in Edin’s and Shaefer’s research.

First, he argued that the authors neglected to factor in the worth of food stamps and rent subsidies and other federal welfare programs available to the poor, which he says could “underestimate the resources available to most families in extreme poverty.”

Jencks figured that, if food stamps and other welfare programs had been factored into Edin and Schaefer's research, the number of the estimated families making less than $2 a day would adjust from "1.7 to 1.1 percent in 1996 and from 4.3 to 1.6 percent in 2011."

Second, Jencks wrote that the authors’ inclusion of families who made $2 a day for just one month fails to factor in the difference of circumstance between someone who lost a job and has no friends or family to lean on versus someone who does.

Jencks also criticized federal policy that evaluates pre-tax income for poor families, which, when combined with the increase in federal assistance, means "roughly half the families now counted as officially poor have a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969."

The current standards for poverty are established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A family of four, for example, with a total annual income of $24,300 or less is considered to live in poverty, according to DHHS. The poverty thresholds that help shape the poverty guidelines are updated by the U.S. Census Bureau every year.

While few others are looking as deep into what defines poverty as Edin, Schaefer or Jencks, the current political climate and resurgence of proposed welfare reforms are drawing attention to what the candidates have to say on the subject.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, recently called poverty "a death sentence" in a speech in Kimball, West Virginia, and has promised to focus on the issue if he were elected.

"In my view, we need to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent," Sanders said during the speech. "We need to create an economy that does not allow the top 1 percent to own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent."

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has taken to Twitter to express her plans to fight poverty. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has also spoken on the matter. The Christian Science Monitor recently described his position as unusual in that it "targets people who have had good jobs but have lost bargaining power in a global economy," instead of those born into poverty.

Sara Weber is an intern with Deseret National and a recent graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Sara can be reached at