Poverty in America: A Relative Term

08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) reintroduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Measuring American Poverty Act (H.R. 2909), that would update the way poverty is measured in the United States. The proposed new way of gauging poverty levels takes into account household costs such as housing, childcare, and clothing -- expenses that are not in the formula currently used by the federal government.

The method used to calculate poverty has not been updated since the early 1960s. Its basic assumption, that food consumes a third of a family's budget, does not reflect today's realities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, low-income families spent less than one-fifth of their income on food in 2008. Since the early 1960s, food expenses have decreased while other living expenses -- such as healthcare, childcare, transportation, and housing -- have gone up considerably.

In addition, the current federal poverty standard does not account for geographical differences in the cost of living. Poverty in New York City means the same income as poverty in Manhattan, Kansas. The Measuring American Poverty Act of 2009 would establish a modern poverty measure to reflect a more accurate picture of what it takes to meet basic needs across America today, regionally and locally.

The economic downturn has millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet and feed their families, and it is almost certainly pushing more people into poverty. Measuring poverty in a way that more accurately reflects today's demands on a family's budget is necessary to ensure that no family is left behind.

We hope Rep. McDermott's reintroduction of this bill will prompt the start of a growing national conversation that reviews how we define poverty in the United States.

Rev. David Beckmann, president, Bread for the World.