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Raise the Poverty Line, Now

Margaret Charboneau holds a bag of food as she distributes items to people affected by efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Friday, April 17, 2020, in La Mesa, Calif. Canned food, toilet paper and other items were handed out by an area food bank to the first 1000 cars in a shopping mall parking lot Friday, with most families waiting for hours to keep their spot in line. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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Margaret Charboneau holds a bag of food as she distributes items to people affected by efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Friday, April 17, 2020, in La Mesa, Calif. Canned food, toilet paper and other items were handed out by an area food bank to the first 1000 cars in a shopping mall parking lot Friday, with most families waiting for hours to keep their spot in line. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Thanks to the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, our country is experiencing mass destitution on a scale we have not seen in 100 years. And President Trump, along with his Republican allies in Congress, wants to respond by throwing millions of people in poverty off of social assistance.

More than 30 million people have lost their jobs since March. The economic crisis is sure to persist longer than we anticipated at the time states and cities across the country began issuing stay-at-home orders and closing non-essential businesses. The unemployment rate has risen past 20 percent—for context, at the nadir of the Great Recession in 2009, unemployment hit 10 percent—and the Congressional Budget Office expects it to remain above 10 percent through the end of 2021. 

But instead of responding by strengthening the safety net, the Trump administration is threatening to cut it. 

In February, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget quietly signaled its intention to redefine the poverty line. While the details of the proposed redefinition have yet to be revealed, it’s safe to assume that the desired changes would be catastrophic for poor people. This is, after all, the same administration that has already proposed a downward revision to the rate at which the poverty line rises with inflation, which threatens to disqualify 1.6 million people from being classified as impoverished. 

This basic math underlying this approach to policy underscores its cruelty. My home county of Rockland, NY, is expensive. Housing for a family of four costs $1,440 per month. Child care costs $2,188 per month. Food costs $612. Health care costs $545. Add in transportation and taxes, and the bare-minimum monthly budget for a family of four totals $6,477. 

But the federal government thinks that a family of four in Rockland County should be able to live on $2,183 per month. The Trump administration thinks that family can do with even less. And that was before the pandemic. 

The poverty line is the basis for our provision of many crucial, often life-saving, social services. Federal assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid are offered only to those who fall below that line (or some multiple of it). That means if and when the line is revised downward, families in need will be unable to benefit from these programs. 

For many families, that represents the difference between having food to eat and going hungry. I should know—I was raised in one of these families. Growing up, my single mother relied on SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, to feed me, and Medicaid to keep me healthy. Without SNAP, I would surely not have had the nutrition I needed to excel in school and make it out of poverty and into Stanford University, the Obama administration, and Harvard Law School. Without Medicaid, I would not have had the medical and dental care I needed to reach adulthood. 

The federal poverty line—just $12,760 for individuals, and $26,200 for a family of four—is not grounded in the lived experience of most Americans. It must be increased, not lowered. 

But there is an unfortunate structural reason why the poverty line has remained unchanged for generations. Politicians are afraid that a more honest accounting will show what most of us already know: a truly staggering number of people in this country live in poverty. If we are serious about fighting poverty, we must be serious about accurately measuring it. And that is going to take political courage. 

The history of the poverty line sheds light on its current inadequacy. It was first developed in 1963 by USDA statistician Molly Olshansky, based on the premise that the average American family spent one-third of its budget on food; therefore, any family making less than three times the cost of a “subsistence basket” of food must be impoverished. To this day, our poverty line is based on that arbitrary and outmoded calculation, indexed to inflation. 

The problem, of course, is that Americans today face vastly different challenges than they did nearly 60 years ago. Families today spend a far higher proportion of their income on housing, health care, and child care than they did in 1963. Families now have monthly bills for things like cell phones, broadband internet, and cable television, that did not exist in 1963. Today, many families spend closer to 90 percent of monthly expenditures on things other than food, up from 66 percent when the poverty line was first devised.

Ridiculously, the poverty line also fails to account for regional variation in the cost of living; rather, the measure is applied equally across the continental United States. That means people in my community, New York’s 17th congressional district, where the fair market rent is $1,789, are treated the same as folks living in Kentucky’s 5th, where the fair market rent is $696. A United Way study found that a family of four in Westchester County, NY, must earn $87,000—more than triple the federal poverty line—in order to afford basic necessities. According to the outdated federal poverty line, 11 percent of households in Westchester live in poverty, but the United Way observes that 40 percent of households in Westchester earn less than the basic cost of living. The crisis of poverty in high cost-of-living areas is one to which the federal government has turned a blind eye. 

It’s time to adjust the poverty line to address 21st century problems. A bill before Congress, the Recognizing Poverty Act (H.R. 5069), would create that. It would adjust for cost-of-living differences by state. It would also require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop an updated measure of poverty that accounts for health care, child care, and educational costs, as well as “new” costs like cell phone and internet bills. The legislation’s lead cosponsor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  (D-NY), estimates that it would revise the federal poverty line to a more realistic $38,000 for individuals living in high-expense areas. It is a strong proposal that I would enthusiastically champion if elected to the House of Representatives.  

Because of the vast number of federal assistance programs available only to Americans below the poverty line, a more truthful measure would be transformative for so many American families. And it would go well beyond programs like SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. It would mean more families could avail themselves of the Weatherization Assistance Program to prepare their homes for the effects of climate change. More healthcare professionals could be trained and deployed to underserved communities through low-interest Health Professions Student Loans and scholarships. More people would be entitled to seek justice through civil legal aid from the Legal Services Corporation. More children would receive life-saving health care through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and educational assistance during their most formative years from Head Start.  All told, these public programs lifted 40 million Americans out of poverty in 2011 alone—and they have the potential to lift millions more. But by undercounting those in poverty, we are ensuring that they stay there for generations to come.

Somewhere in my home district, there’s a child whose parents work multiple jobs, earning just barely enough to eke past the poverty line. After a month’s expenses of gas, sky-high rent, and day care, there is little leftover. She’s uninsured but can’t qualify for the Childhood Health Insurance Program; she goes to school hungry each day because she doesn’t qualify for free breakfast; and one day, when she beats the odds and applies to college, she will be at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for Pell Grants. Our antiquated definitions of who qualifies as poor are leaving children like this behind while we give tax cuts to billionaires and corporations. 

Let’s change that. Stories like mine, and millions more being shaped as the crisis rages, show why it is imperative that we do.

Mondaire Jones is a resident of South Nyack, NY, and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York’s 17th district.