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JCPA Op-Ed on Reforming the Federal Poverty Line Published in The Washington Post's 'On Faith'

03:44 PM May 14, 2009

Today, Thursday May 14th, The Washington Post's "On Faith" Forum published an op-ed by JCPA's Rabbi Steve Gutow and Melissa Boteach, exploring the parallels between the biblical commandment to conduct a census of all the tribes of Israel, and the necessity of determining better methods of keeping track of and measuring the condition in which people live in the United States through a reformed Federal Poverty Measure. 

Please read the op-ed below, or click here to read and leave comments about the piece.


Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith Forum

Measuring Poverty in America

By Rabbi Steve Gutow and Melissa Boteach

May 14, 2009

This Shabbat, Jews will read from the book of Numbers, the Torah portion in which G-d commands the Israelites to undertake a census. On a superficial level, the census in the desert is about tallying the numbers of the 12 tribes for military purposes. However, at the heart of the concept of this census is the need to count every person, to include and to value each soul, and consequently, to govern society according to an accurate assessment of how people are doing. How do we know that? The chapter could simply mention each tribe and its population, but it does not. Unlike any census here in America, the Torah names a person as it mentions the tribe. It adds humanity to the census. It tells us that this census is about people and if it is to be used to protect a society, to assign responsibility, to fairly and equitably share benefits among the whole, each person matters.

This is not true in our society. We do not seem to regard each person in the same light. The fact is, we do not worry about many of our people. Our federal poverty measure is based on an outdated 1960s formula that no longer represents a realistic indicator of what it means to be poor in America. The measure essentially takes the cost of purchasing an emergency food diet in 1955, multiples that number by three (since at the time food constituted about 1/3 of household expenditures), and then adjusts this amount by inflation every year. According to the current federal poverty line (a measure on which access to over 80 public benefits are based), a person's pre-tax income is all that matters for determining who is considered poor. It doesn't matter whether the person lives in Mississippi or Manhattan. It doesn't matter if their income is supplemented by successful, poverty-reduction programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program or housing vouchers. Our ability to gauge how many people are really left behind in our society is reduced to a simple and outdated statistic. This would not do if we looked at people as they are and not as they were... if we put faces to our numbers... if we followed the message of the book of Numbers.

While the inadequacies of the federal poverty measure may seem like a technical and wonky issue, how we determine the factors of poverty will wind up enabling us to conquer the reality of poverty. Take Crystal Perez, a client of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty whose case was recently featured in the media. She is a 25-year-old single mother who has held a steady job the past four years, earning $500 per week as a sous-chef at a local restaurant while caring for her 5-year-old son.

Crystal personifies the changes that have impacted family budgets since the federal poverty measure was set in the 1960s. Crystal is poor and yet because our government will not take the changes in our budgetary expenditures into account, Crystal misses out on a host of benefits she and her son so need.

Crystal is just one of millions of Americans whom we could view only as a statistic on a ledger or who we can look at as real people living in a real world. The House and Senate are set to re-introduce a bill that would put America on a path to reforming our nation's outdated way of measuring poverty. The bill would put real facts and real faces into play. The new poverty measure would reflect the current costs of basic necessities, such as the child care and the out of pocket medical expenses that Crystal faces. The legislation would base the income threshold on after-tax income and would take into account income assistance from public programs, so that we can measure the impact that the School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs had on reducing poverty for Crystal and her son.

This bill is about truth. How can we even begin to solve the problem of poverty if our facts do not respond to the economic reality of real people? We cannot allow 1950 economic measurements to determine if 21st century people survive or do not survive. This measure will not change the absolute amount of money that separates the poor from the "not poor" in America but it will allow this country to make determinations based on the real allocations of income in today's world. Truth is the mandate of god in all of our traditions. Fighting poverty is a major principle of every religion in the world. Let's put real faces and real numbers on the reality of poverty and the poor.

Let's start by finding out where we realistically stand right now and work from there. We can try to get this bill through Congress, or, President Obama also has the power to reform our federal poverty measure simply by issuing a directive to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Either way, the faith community must work with all of our elected officials to push this initiative forward. In the Bible real life and real people are reflected by the census. In 21st century America, we owe ourselves and our society at least that much.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president and Melissa Boteach is the senior policy associate and poverty campaign coordinator for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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