How Do We Alleviate Poverty If We Can't Even Define It?

Yesterday the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships offered a recommendation that affirms a historic stance of American churches and will take a significant step toward alleviating poverty in the U.S. Throughout the Bible, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul's letters to the early Church all call on believers to break the yoke of injustice, feed the hungry, and house the poor. The prophets make it especially clear that this is a societal obligation, not merely an individual one. But how are we corporately and individually able to answer this call if we don't know who the poor are or what they need? That is the question the Advisory Council's recommendation would seek to answer and one of the reasons why the report we just released is so critical.

Current federal guidelines for measuring poverty have not been updated since the 1960s and are woefully inadequate in helping assess levels of poverty in America today. A new standard is needed. Among a number of other recommendations, the Advisory Council urged the President to "utilize the knowledge, expertise and on-the-ground experience of local faith-based and community organizations to redefine the Federal poverty guideline so it more accurately measures and responds to the needs of low-income people."

As the recommendation goes on to say, "Living costs and expenditures have changed dramatically since 1965." Instead of using the 45-year-old standard that assumes families will spend one-third of all available income on food, a new standard would more accurately reflect the fact that "the modern American family spends just one-seventh of household income on food while many other expenses, such as transportation, medical expenses, housing and childcare costs have increased dramatically." As costs rise in nearly every aspect of life, low-income people are forced to bear an increasingly heavy yoke. And as long as our systems for determining who should receive aid are based on outdated models, these people have no hope for relief.

Partly as a result of the work of the Advisory Council, the Administration is working to correct this flawed formula. The Department of Commerce will use a new formula for the first time next year in the Census Bureau report. Under a "Supplemental Poverty Measure" the government is augmenting, not replacing, the formula that determines how many people are considered to be living in poverty. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, also affirmed the new standard suggested by the Advisory Council as an important step and promised that the Advisory Council recommendations "will become an active action plan."

America's churches and persons of faith have a rich and vibrant history of speaking out on the issue of poverty. We are already on the front lines, responding to the call of their faith to care for the poor among us, and we are ready to do more. But without a means of accurately gauging the needs of our communities and the ability to direct federal resources where they can do the most good, millions will continue to go hungry, homeless, and forgotten.

Fifteen years ago the National Academy of Sciences issued a more accurate definition of poverty than the one currently being used. The Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is ready to put that definition to work. But we can't stop there; a new measure to determine who is living in poverty needs attention right now throughout the federal government. If we can do this, maybe we have a chance to do what so many faith communities are striving to do: abate poverty. But if we can't measure it, we can't abate it. So let's start measuring.