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Why some people receiving federal benefits don’t consider themselves poor, even though poverty rates have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the past 25 years, my research as a cultural anthropologist has taken me to visit the homes and neighborhoods of people living in poverty in cities and rural communities across the United States.

To better understand their daily lives, I also spent time in grocery stores, churches, nightclubs, parks, and health clinics.

I asked countless questions, ranging from how many times they moved to the types of social services they received.

But of all the answers, none has perplexed me more than the one I receive when I ask, “Are you poor?”

No one ever said yes.

One mother was almost indignant. “My children have food in their bellies, a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs, so no, I am not poor,” she told me.

A decent standard of living

So who decides who is poor in America?

The answer comes from the federal government, which has spent nearly 60 years trying to define and measure poverty and, ultimately, allocate funds to provide families with a financial safety net.

Although many of the people I interviewed over the years did not consider themselves poor, their incomes made them eligible for government subsidies such as cash assistance, Medicaid, or public housing, thereby placing them in categories whom the government considers poor.

In the United States, poverty is based on a person’s ability to purchase the things they need to achieve a certain standard of living. According to 2022 US Census Bureau data – the most recent available – poverty for a family of four was defined as having an annual income of US$29,960 or less. For a single person, the poverty threshold was $14,891.

To put these numbers in perspective, the median U.S. household income in 2022 was $74,580, more than twice the poverty line. About 38 million Americans – almost 12% – live at or below the poverty line. And 16.1% of children under 6 live in poverty.

Measuring poverty in the United States

In the early 1960s, Mollie Orshansky, a government statistician, developed the official poverty measure that is still used today.

In his previous statistical work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Orshansky calculated that people spend about a third of their income on food. Known as the breadbasket method, the income level used to define poverty was calculated based on the cost of feeding a family.

Since the 1960s, the rate of people living in poverty has remained between 11% and 15%.

But the measure has some flaws.

Consider regional differences in costs for the same products. At the start of 2024, for example, a loaf of bread in Los Angeles, California, cost $4.73, while in Louisville, Kentucky, the same loaf cost $2.46.

Another flaw lies in the definition of what constitutes a family of four members.

The costs of feeding a family of four can be very different for a single mother with three school-age children and for a married couple with two young children.

The politics of poverty

Since 2011, the second indicator used by Census Bureau officials has been the supplemental poverty rate.

Unlike the official poverty rate, the supplemental rate takes into account various types of government assistance such as food assistance, housing and energy assistance, as well as tax credits and stimulus payments. The measure also calculates regional differences in cost of living, medical care and housing.

An image showing two middle-aged white men dressed in business suits debating.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden during their 2020 presidential debate.
Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Although distinct, these two measures are often used by politicians to score points over their political rivals.

This was the case in September 2023, when the Census Bureau found that the supplemental rate increased from 7.8% in 2021 to 12.4% in 2022, the largest increase since 2010.

The same measure for the share of children living in poverty also reached 12.4%, more than double from 2021’s 5.2%.

When the numbers were released by the Census Bureau in September 2023, former President Donald Trump immediately attacked President Joe Biden and compared the decline in poverty during his presidency with an increase in poverty during Biden’s term. Biden.

But Trump left out key facts.

The additional rates actually declined, from 14% in 2016, before Trump took office in 2017, to 9.2% in his last full year as president in 2020. But the decline was large part due to financial aid linked to the coronavirus which was made available to eligible people. and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relief payments also helped reduce the number of people living in poverty under the Biden administration.

But those COVID-19-era payments expired in 2021. Without that same aid — and help from Biden’s American Rescue Plan — the share of people considered poor increased in 2022 under Biden. The sharp increase that year follows the previous year, when the percentage of people living in poverty was at its lowest level on record.

Temporary relief?

After the Great Depression, American presidents made poverty reduction a priority of their administrations. Most notably, Franklin D. Roosevelt had the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society.

A middle-aged black woman fills her basket with free food.
Free food distributed in February 2024 to residents of Brooklyn, New York
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

But so far in the 2024 presidential campaign, the issue of poverty reduction has been overshadowed by Trump’s legal troubles and Biden’s failure to force an end to the war between Israel and Hamas .

In the world’s richest country, more than 23 million people – or just over one in 10 adults – live in households where there was not enough food to eat, according to the World Health Survey. March 2024 Household Pulse from the Census Bureau. And many of these people have jobs.

Despite the trillions of U.S. dollars spent to lift people out of poverty – $1.9 trillion in 2022 alone – it appears that the federal government’s ability to provide a safety net to all who need it is failing. was not up to par.

As economist Bob Pfeiffer once said, “Our welfare system is designed to make life more comfortable, not to solve poverty.” »