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The SSRC Library allows visitors to access materials related to self-sufficiency programs, practice and research. Visitors can view common search terms, conduct a keyword search or create a custom search using any combination of the filters at the left side of this page. To conduct a keyword search, type a term or combination of terms into the search box below, select whether you want to search the exact phrase or the words in any order, and click on the blue button to the right of the search box to view relevant results.

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  • Individual Author: Cooper, P. Mae; Teague, Shawn
    Reference Type: SSRC Products
    Year: 2016

    Posted by P. Mae Cooper* & Shawn Teague, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff

    All poverty research, policy, and practice is built on the decision of who to count as poor or in need. In actuality, there are multiple dimensions of need, and people generally fall on a spectrum of poverty, not into categories. For many practical purposes, however, a decision must be made as to who to categorize as poor, and simple metrics are critical in making that decision.

    It can be easy to take poverty measurement for granted. Most researchers and practitioners use the Federal Poverty Line, or some multiple of the line, as a simple short-hand for poverty. Given how pervasive the use of this measure is, it can seem like the question of who to count as poor is essentially settled. But, in many ways, the Federal Poverty Line was set to be a convenient shorthand--to use with...

    Posted by P. Mae Cooper* & Shawn Teague, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff

    All poverty research, policy, and practice is built on the decision of who to count as poor or in need. In actuality, there are multiple dimensions of need, and people generally fall on a spectrum of poverty, not into categories. For many practical purposes, however, a decision must be made as to who to categorize as poor, and simple metrics are critical in making that decision.

    It can be easy to take poverty measurement for granted. Most researchers and practitioners use the Federal Poverty Line, or some multiple of the line, as a simple short-hand for poverty. Given how pervasive the use of this measure is, it can seem like the question of who to count as poor is essentially settled. But, in many ways, the Federal Poverty Line was set to be a convenient shorthand--to use with limited data—yet it has not changed, even while the way Americans live has transformed dramatically.

    Defining who is poor is a complex undertaking, requiring multiple decisions. It generally involves defining four things: what people have, what people need, when to include them, and who to include. Sometimes, the measure also includes an implicit or explicit “why” people are in need.

    For instance, the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) measures what people have with their pre-tax income and their cash benefits. It sets what they need as three times the cost of a “bare-bones” diet, adjusted for inflation. The OPM is based on income in the past year, and is measured at the family level: a person and their spouse, as well as any children that are related to them. While there is no explicit “why” criteria, the use of pre-tax income to measure resources implicitly excludes those who are needy because of money mismanagement, high taxes, or large expenses such as medical or rental costs.

    Over the years, there have been many approximations that attempt to ‘pin down’ a definition of poverty. The measurements vary in precision and utility – often more precise measurements rely on data that are hard to collect or rarely available. Others are informative for a particular purpose, but not useful as a broad measure of need.

    Aside from the OPM, the U.S. Census Bureau also produces estimates for a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). This measure includes non-cash benefits and taxes in its measurement of resources, sets need thresholds based on a wider variety of basic costs, includes unmarried partners in its definition of family, and varies by region to reflect differences in cost-of-living. Other common poverty measures are based on spending, assets, or specific hardships rather than income; examine how poverty varies over time; set need relative to some average; or combine a number of different measures.

    Whatever the measure, both research and practice could be improved with careful consideration of the definitions that we choose to use.  

    Learn More about Poverty Measurement from the SSRC:

    The SSRC Library contains numerous evaluation reports and stakeholder resources on measuring poverty, including:

    For more resources, check out the SSRC Library and subscribe to SSRC or follow us on Twitter to receive updates about upcoming events, new library materials on self-sufficiency topics of interest to you and more.

    *Mae Cooper prepared this SSRC Note while she was a Research Analyst at Child Trends and working as a part of the SSRC team.

  • Individual Author: Orshansky, Mollie
    Reference Type: Report
    Year: 1976

    The current official measure of poverty used by the Federal government was originally developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration in the early sixties.  Her study, "Children of the Poor", first appeared in the July 1963 Social Security Bulletin, describing a methodology for developing income criteria of need by family size, for families with children.  In January 1965 the Social Security Bulletin contained another article by her entitled "Counting the Poor", which updated and extended the criteria to all types of households, she used as before, a concept of poverty based on budgets centering around cost of a diet which can sustain and adequate nutritional level at a minimal cost using a sliding scale of income requirements for different family sizes and compositions.  An additional refinement was the specification of a lower income level as the threshold for farm families.  This refinement reflected the assumption that farm families customarily obtain housing and food as part of the farm business operation, rather than by direct expenditure. (publisher...

    The current official measure of poverty used by the Federal government was originally developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration in the early sixties.  Her study, "Children of the Poor", first appeared in the July 1963 Social Security Bulletin, describing a methodology for developing income criteria of need by family size, for families with children.  In January 1965 the Social Security Bulletin contained another article by her entitled "Counting the Poor", which updated and extended the criteria to all types of households, she used as before, a concept of poverty based on budgets centering around cost of a diet which can sustain and adequate nutritional level at a minimal cost using a sliding scale of income requirements for different family sizes and compositions.  An additional refinement was the specification of a lower income level as the threshold for farm families.  This refinement reflected the assumption that farm families customarily obtain housing and food as part of the farm business operation, rather than by direct expenditure. (publisher abstract)

    This  Technical Paper collects a number of important articles and papers by Mollie Orshansky and others about the development and early history of the poverty thresholds, including: 

    Mollie Orshansky, "Children of the Poor", Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1963, pp. 3-13.

    Mollie Orshansky, "Counting the Poor:  Another Look at the Poverty Profile", Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 3-29 — reprinted in Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 10, October 1988, pp. 25-51.

    Mollie Orshansky, "Who's Who Among the Poor:  A Demographic View of Poverty", Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 7, July 1965, pp. 3-32.

    Mollie Orshansky, "How poverty is measured", Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 92, No. 2, February 1969, pp. 37-41.

  • Individual Author: Romero, Jessie
    Reference Type: Report
    Year: 2013

    For decades, the official poverty rate has been criticized by economists, policymakers, and activists from both the left and the right. A variety of incremental improvements and wholesale changes have been proposed by both federal and private sector researchers. What these research efforts show, however, is not that one definition of poverty is unequivocally correct, but rather how challenging poverty is to define. (Author abstract)

    For decades, the official poverty rate has been criticized by economists, policymakers, and activists from both the left and the right. A variety of incremental improvements and wholesale changes have been proposed by both federal and private sector researchers. What these research efforts show, however, is not that one definition of poverty is unequivocally correct, but rather how challenging poverty is to define. (Author abstract)

  • Individual Author: Short, Kathleen
    Reference Type: Report
    Year: 2012

    Last year the U.S. Census Bureau, with support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), released the first report describing research on the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).The SPM extends the information provided by the official poverty measure by including many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that are not included in the current official poverty measure. The current official poverty measure was developed in the early 1960s, and only a few minor changes have been implemented since it was first adopted in 1969 (Orshansky, 1963, 1965a, 1965b; Fisher, 1992). The official measure consists of a set of thresholds for families of different sizes and compositions that are compared to before-tax cash income to determine a family’s poverty status. At the time they were developed, the official poverty thresholds represented the cost of a minimum diet multiplied by three (to allow for expenditures on other goods and services).

    Concerns about...

    Last year the U.S. Census Bureau, with support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), released the first report describing research on the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).The SPM extends the information provided by the official poverty measure by including many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that are not included in the current official poverty measure. The current official poverty measure was developed in the early 1960s, and only a few minor changes have been implemented since it was first adopted in 1969 (Orshansky, 1963, 1965a, 1965b; Fisher, 1992). The official measure consists of a set of thresholds for families of different sizes and compositions that are compared to before-tax cash income to determine a family’s poverty status. At the time they were developed, the official poverty thresholds represented the cost of a minimum diet multiplied by three (to allow for expenditures on other goods and services).

    Concerns about the adequacy of the official measure have increased during the past decades (Ruggles, 1990), culminating in a Congressional appropriation in 1990 for an independent scientific study of the concepts, measurement methods, and information needed for a poverty measure. In response, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) established the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance, which released its report, titled Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, in the spring of 1995 (Citro and Michael, 1995). Based on its assessment of the weaknesses of the current poverty measure, this NAS panel of experts recommended having a measure that better reflects contemporary social and economic realities and government policy. In their report, the NAS panel identified several major weaknesses of the current poverty measure.

    This report presents a poverty measure that is based largely on the NAS Panel’s recommendations, with deviations reflecting more recent research and suggestions from the ITWG. Particular emphasis is on internal consistency between the thresholds and resources. The NAS Panel noted: “It is important that family resources are defined consistently with the threshold concept in any poverty measure.” The SPM, as defined by the ITWG, is an internally consistent poverty measure that is based on spending “outflows” and money “inflows.” Spending outflows, or outlays are those for basic needs only: food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and other basic necessary goods and services. Resources include money income from all sources plus the value of near-money benefits that help the family meet spending needs, less necessary expenses, like work-related expenses and taxes that must be paid. A family is designated as poor if its annual money inflow, net of necessary expenses, falls below the threshold level of money outflow. (author abstract)

  • Individual Author: Fisher, Gordon M.
    Reference Type: Report
    Year: 1997

    In view of... recent renewed interest in poverty definition and measurement, it may be useful to reexamine how the current official poverty thresholds were originally developed, and what their subsequent history has been. The following account of the poverty thresholds is based largely on primary sources--e.g., papers and articles by Mollie Orshansky, who developed the thresholds, and unpublished records of federal interagency committees which reviewed the thresholds at various times. (A number of published descriptions of the poverty thresholds have either failed to consult published primary sources with sufficient care or have failed to consult them altogether, resulting in errors and inaccuracies.) This account concentrates on the internal or administrative history of the poverty thresholds; external debates about the poverty measure have been conducted in large part on the public record, while the primary sources for the internal administrative history tend to be either neglected or simply not available in published form. (author introduction)

    In view of... recent renewed interest in poverty definition and measurement, it may be useful to reexamine how the current official poverty thresholds were originally developed, and what their subsequent history has been. The following account of the poverty thresholds is based largely on primary sources--e.g., papers and articles by Mollie Orshansky, who developed the thresholds, and unpublished records of federal interagency committees which reviewed the thresholds at various times. (A number of published descriptions of the poverty thresholds have either failed to consult published primary sources with sufficient care or have failed to consult them altogether, resulting in errors and inaccuracies.) This account concentrates on the internal or administrative history of the poverty thresholds; external debates about the poverty measure have been conducted in large part on the public record, while the primary sources for the internal administrative history tend to be either neglected or simply not available in published form. (author introduction)

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