Jordan Weissmann: The Poverty Line Was Designed Assuming Every Family Had a Housewife Who Was a 'Skillful Cook'.
The official poverty line, as I wrote yesterday, is a dated and crude statistical concept that in many ways fails to capture America's historical success at fighting economic need. It was based on the cost of food in 1963, mostly because the Department of Agriculture had some idea of what a basic grocery budget should look like, whereas there wasn't any real agreement on what families needed to spend on other essentials. Since then, it's mostly just been adjusted for inflation.Even at the time, the assumption that every family looked basically the same was bullshit. There have always been communities in the US, especially communities with endemic poverty, where many families were headed by multiple generations of women, most or all of whom worked outside the home, often in service work for privileged families who fit the "hypothetical family" model.
Keep that history in mind while reading this passage, which I found in a 1992 report by the Social Security Administration on how the poverty threshold came to be:
When the hypothetical family cut back its food expenditures to the point where they equaled the cost of the economy food plan (or the low cost food plan) for a family of that size, the family would have reached the point at which its food expenditures were minimal but adequate, assuming that "the housewife will be a careful shopper, a skillful cook, and a good manager who will prepare all the family's meals at home."...What I think this passage shows...is that when we try to capture abstract concepts like "poverty" in a statistic, we inevitably end up wrapping a certain set of values and social expectations into the package, which can then become very outdated. As we dwell on America's successes or failures fighting poverty 50 years after Lyndon Johnson declared war on it, remember that the stats we use in that conversation are almost never as simple or straightforward as they seem.
But it's exponential bullshit now to imagine all families fit this neat model, or to imagine that even in families which look like 1963's "hypothetical model," two opposite-sex parents + kids, it's reasonable to assume there's a stay-at-home mom to be "a careful shopper, a skillful cook, and a good manager who will prepare all the family's meals at home."
Which of course is to say nothing about food deserts. This fantastical assumption about Sous-zie Homemaker makes no accommodation for lack of access to affordable food.
The presumptions on which the federal poverty line is based were garbage in 1963, and now they are impossibly outdated garbage. And yet this is the baseline we're still using. Meanwhile, the national conversation is about how poor people are lazy and entitled and blah blah blah bootstraps.