Washington, DC - In fact, poverty has declined significantly over the past 50 years, but neither side has recognized the major progress that has been made. So it is heartening to see that the White House, through the CEA, has taken the step of recognizing that progress—and recommending that the existing safety net be adapted and improved in light of it.
Instead of focusing on reported incomes, our work measures poverty based on consumption: what food, housing, transportation and other goods and services people are able to purchase. This approach, which captures the effect of noncash programs and accounts for the known bias in the CPI-U, demonstrates clearly that there is much less material deprivation than there was decades ago.
Other indicators support this finding. According to the American Housing Survey, the poorest 20% of Americans live as the middle class did a generation ago as measured by the square footage of their homes, the number of rooms per person, and the presence of air conditioning, dishwashers and other amenities.
Fighting poverty requires knowing its extent and among whom it is most severe. Modern antipoverty efforts should promote self-sufficiency. This can be accomplished through work requirements, as well as by helping low-skilled individuals find jobs, offering public employment in targeted cases and helping low-income parents secure child care.
At the same time, the safety net should ensure that those who are unable to work have access to sufficient resources to meet their basic needs. Encouraging self-sufficiency used to be a bipartisan issue; it can be again.