It's Not How We Measure Poverty, but Whether We Act

11/04/2011 03:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

The Census Bureau is set to roll out a new way of measuring poverty in the United States, according to a front-page story in today's New York Times. Instead of counting how many families are living below the federal poverty line, the Bureau will now also take into account food stamps, local rent, medical costs and other factors that affect people's living conditions.

It's crucial that we have an accurate understanding of the number of people living in poverty in America, but it's what we do with that information to make change that matters most.

Kids living in poverty are likely to stay there, whether or not they're getting extra nutrition from the government or whether their family can afford a slightly better rent in Biloxi than in the Bronx. In fact, the Brookings Institute reported this week that the number of people living in extreme poverty -- that is, communities where more than 40 percent of families live below the federal poverty line -- grew by a third over the last decade.

Ultimately, our national imperative has to be around breaking the cycle of poverty. No matter how we look at this crisis, the solution is the same: education.

Kids living in poverty are 18 months behind educationally by the age of four. Falling behind reverberates throughout their lifetime, making them more likely to die from an infectious disease or become obese, and more likely to mature into teens and young adults at higher risk for drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and becoming high-school drop outs.

In fact, a Center for American Progress study found that childhood poverty costs our nation $500 billion per year.

Figuring out whether the poverty crisis is calamitous or catastrophic is not the issue. What we must be figuring out, instead, is how to summon the political will to end the crisis and bring the poverty rate down to zero.