[This commentary was first published in The Portland Tribune]
While it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will involve the nation in a new armed conflict in the Middle East, this much is certain: it has no qualms about waging war against this country’s poor families.
The administration has, for instance, sought to cut funding for housing assistance at a time when much of the nation — Oregon included — suffer through a housing affordability crisis. For some who struggle to put food on the table, the administration is intent on putting up barriers to food assistance.
Now, the White House seeks to deploy a new weapon in its war on the poor. This weapon makes the poor vanish, not with a ray-gun as in sci-fi movies, but through a statistical trick. If the Trump administration succeeds, it will it inflict serious suffering on millions of America’s most vulnerable families in the years to come.
The White House has proposed changing how the government sets the poverty line — the line that defines who officially counts as “poor.” Each year, when determining the amount of income that constitutes poverty, the government takes into account the rising cost of living. The poverty line is pegged to an inflation measure, what is generally referred to as the “consumer price index” or “CPI.” But now, the administration has proposed using a different inflation measure – the “chained CPI”— that is certain to rise more slowly.
This means that, over time, fewer people will meet the income level needed to be counted as poor. This matters because the poverty line determines who is eligible for services such as food assistance and health care. If the administration’s plan moves forward, some families previously deemed as living in poverty will no longer fall below the poverty line, even though their material circumstances did not improve.
In seeking to depress the poverty line, the Trump administration is going in the wrong direction. The fact is, the poverty line is set too low and is rising too slowly.
It is widely recognized that the official definition of poverty, developed in the early 1960s, is outdated and flawed. Under that definition, families are poor when their income is less than three times the price of a modest basket of food. That method for determining the poverty level has not changed to reflect the fact that, compared to decades ago, a bigger share of a family’s paycheck now goes to non-food items such as housing, child care, transportation, and health care.
Just how unrealistic is the current poverty line? The line varies according to family size. In 2019, for a family of three, the poverty line stands at $21,330 ($1,778 per month). It is hard to image a family of three making, say, $24,000 a year, not experiencing severe financial strain. Such a family is poor in all but name.
Even under this unrealistically low standard, 15 percent of people in Multnomah County meet the official definition of poverty. This despite one of the longest economic expansions on record. It’s an indication of how out of balance our economy has become.
Not only is the poverty line set too low, the annual inflation adjustments fail to keep up with the cost of living, at least as it pertains to those with low incomes. Researchers have found that inflation has been rising faster for low-income households than for households generally. The escalating cost of rental housing — lower-income households are more likely to rent than to own a home — is likely one of the factors pushing up costs more rapidly for those with fewer means.
The technical change the administration proposes would not simply alter numbers on a spreadsheet — it would have real life consequences for our nation’s most vulnerable families. The poverty line serves as the basis for Department of Health and Human Services’ “poverty guidelines.” These, in turn, determine who qualifies for food assistance, Medicaid, Head Start, and a host of other types of federal assistance. In time, the Trump administration’s proposed change would reduce or eliminate assistance for millions of vulnerable Americans.
Congress may be our best hope to put a stop to this attack on the poor. Oregonians should call on their congressional delegation to fight against this underhanded maneuver.
Poverty remains a serious problem in our state and nation, one that requires real solutions. The Trump administration’s effort to degrade the poverty measure will do nothing to address the problem, and instead will only aggravate economic hardship for those who have the least.