Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are we looking to defeat poverty or promote economic security?

How do YOU define what YOUR family needs to make ends meet? Do you use your food budget only? Or, do you come up with a real number that addresses your monthly expenses?

Have you ever wondered why many state and federal work support programs use eligibility phrases like 150% of the Federal Poverty Level or 200% of the Federal Poverty Level?

Could it be because practitioners know that the FPL is artificially low? Could it be that they know BOTH parents typically work in low-income households with two adults? Could it be that they know families with young children can spend as much as 1/3 of their monthly income on child care? Could it be that they know what it takes to make ends meet varies from place to place?

For too long our nation has relied on a measure of deprivation to drive our efforts to fight a ‘war on poverty.’ What would happen if the U.S. relied on an index of income adequacy--a measure of what it takes families of different sizes and types to move toward financial well-being in their geographic locations--to drive efforts to lead a ‘movement to economic security’?

Perhaps it is time that we get past the notion that we don’t want to see an increase in the number of people who are determined to be in poverty because (1) the numbers wouldn’t be pretty especially among children and seniors, and (2) because it might require additional funding for safety net programs. Interestingly enough, the Office of Management and Budget could with the stroke of a pen change the methodology for the Federal Poverty Level. And, the OMB answers to the White House which could call on the OMB to do just that.

To his credit, Representative McDermott introduced (and reportedly will re-introduce) legislation calling for the modernization of the federal poverty measure and for the creation of a Decent Living Standard. If you’ve not seen this legislation, take a look. It is certainly a leap in the right direction.

More than a decade ago, Wider Opportunities for Women working with Dr. Diana Pearce to develop a measure of self-sufficiency--a place-based measure that would define what it takes families to make ends meet. Over the years, 35 states and the District of Columbia have developed Self-Sufficiency Standards, and other organizations have developed similar models for their own use and for use in some of the remaining states.

If cities and states recognize the value of using this newer lens to look at family financial health for both policy and program purposes, surely the federal government could do the same.

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