For fifty years, the Census Bureau used a basic poverty measure that did not take into account factors like the local cost of living, tax credits, or safety-net programs. But new numbers released this week, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, provide a much more complex picture of poverty, significantly changing the numbers for seniors and children. We look at ways this new data may affect policy debates about people struggling to make ends meet both locally and nationally.


  • Jenny Reed Policy Analyst, DC Fiscal Policy Institute
  • Sheila Zedlewski Fellow, Urban Institute
  • Kat Aaron Project Editor, Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University School of Communication


  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Your Turn, a simple question: Should Joe Paterno have been fired or not? But first, who is poor? For the past five decades, the government has defined poverty with a number. The poverty threshold has been a simple multiple of basic food expenses meant to be a placeholder until a better method was developed.

  • 12:07:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis week, the Census Bureau released a new, more sophisticated measure of poverty, one that takes into account social safety net benefits, like food stamps and differences in cost of living, and it paints a much more nuanced picture of who is poor in America. But measuring poverty has always been political. It affects who qualifies for benefits and what kind of help is needed. And as we head into this year four of recession and an election year, the cost of programs for the poor will certainly factor into political debates.

  • 12:07:56

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore these issues is Sheila Zedlewski, fellow at the Urban Institute. Sheila Zedlewski, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:04

    MS. SHEILA ZEDLEWSKIYou're welcome. Glad to be here, Kojo.

  • 12:08:06

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Jenny Reed. She's a policy analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank that looks at budget and tax issues and policies affecting low-income residents. Jenny Reed, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:20

    MS. JENNY REEDThank you for having me.

  • 12:08:22

    NNAMDIAnd Kat Aaron is a project editor with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication. Kat, good to have you in studio also.

  • 12:08:32

    MS. KAT AARONMy pleasure.

  • 12:08:33

    NNAMDIFeel free to join this conversation. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think official poverty measures accurately reflect who is poor? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to, or simply go to our website, Join the conversation there. Sheila, I'll start with you. What is the federal poverty measure, and how was it originally developed?

  • 12:09:03

    ZEDLEWSKIWell, the federal poverty measure is made up of two parts. It compares a family's income or resources to a threshold which we think of as the minimum that they need to get by. This threshold was developed originally back in the early 1960s. And as you mentioned earlier, it was simply what share of income people spend on food, which was one-third back in the 1950s, actually, and it was multiplied by three.

  • 12:09:42

    ZEDLEWSKIAnd that was a rough estimate of people -- what people needed to get by developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration. So two parts, resources and a threshold, and the new measure changes both of those elements in dramatic ways.

  • 12:10:00

    NNAMDIHas the percentage of income that Americans spend on food changed between the 1950s and the 1960s and now?

  • 12:10:07

    ZEDLEWSKIYes. Yes. It has changed dramatically. Right now, on average, people spend 13 percent of their income on food, but they spend a lot more on housing and transportation to get to work and those kinds of things.

  • 12:10:21

    NNAMDIJenny, meanwhile, housing and other costs have tended to rise, as Sheila was just pointing out, as a percentage of most people's expenses. How much?

  • 12:10:30

    REEDWell, that's exactly right. I mean, here in the District, we've seen median rent actually rise by 35 percent over the last 10 years, and incomes, at the same time, have only grown by 15 percent. So our costs of living are growing very rapidly.

  • 12:10:45

    NNAMDISheila, there have been concerns about the official poverty measure since it was developed in the 1960s. Why has it taken so long to develop a more nuanced tool?

  • 12:10:55

    ZEDLEWSKIWell, you're right. There have been concerns, but I think those concerns really escalated as our policies changed significantly in this country more towards things like refundable tax credits and food assistance, which are not counted as income when the official measure is used. So back in the -- 1995 -- so that's 16 years ago -- a major volume was published by the National Academy Sciences, after a couple of years of deliberation, recommending changes in how we measure poverty.

  • 12:11:35

    ZEDLEWSKIAnd since then, it's been quite a lot of research that the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other private agencies or private companies have done to improve this measure. So it's really been a long time coming, yes, but it's been very thoughtful changes, very carefully done. And even now, the Census Bureau will tell you that this is still a researched product that's going to continue to change and improve.

  • 12:12:04

    NNAMDIWell, what has come is the new supplemental poverty measure released by the Census Bureau this week. What new information does that give us?

  • 12:12:14

    ZEDLEWSKIWell, the new measure is done very differently, as you alluded to earlier, in resources it counts, all sorts of what we call near-cash benefits, housing assistance, food assistance. But it also deducts what we would call nondiscretionary expenses, and that includes taxes and your out-of-pocket medical spending and your cost of going to work. So those are the big changes in the resources. And then the threshold changed to be a much more up-to-date picture of what people need to buy the necessities of life.

  • 12:12:57

    NNAMDIBut here's the thing. The new supplemental poverty measure does not, in fact, replace the official one. Can you explain the difference, and what each is used for?

  • 12:13:07

    ZEDLEWSKIThat's right. This is a supplemental poverty measure. We will still be using the official poverty measure, which is much simpler for guidance of the share that are poor, an alternative, in other words, metric. But the official measure is also used for a lot of safety net programs to determine whether people need benefits. For example, the food stamp program uses the poverty threshold as a guideline to determine who can get food stamp benefits.

  • 12:13:39

    ZEDLEWSKIAnd that isn't going to change. The supplemental measure is designed to be a much more sophisticated way of measuring resources and especially to take into account the value of what government policy is trying to do in reducing poverty.

  • 12:13:57

    NNAMDISo, for the time being at least, it is more an analytical tool than a policy tool?

  • 12:14:03

    ZEDLEWSKIYes. That's right.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDIKat, what numbers change under the supplemental measure?

  • 12:14:10

    AARONWell, the most dramatic changes, I think, are the numbers for people under 18 -- so children -- and the numbers for seniors. Seniors are far more likely to be in poverty or higher numbers of senior in poverty under the supplemental measure than under the official measure. And that's mostly because of the medical out-of-pocket expenses. Seniors are having to spend a lot of money on out-of-pocket medical costs, and because so many are living just on the precipice of poverty, that out-of-pocket medical spending drops them below the poverty line.

  • 12:14:44

    AARONAnd children, in contrast, are -- many of them are in households that are sort of just below the poverty threshold. So once you add in things like the earned income tax credit or food stamps, they're elevated above the official poverty line.

  • 12:14:59

    NNAMDISo under the new supplemental poverty measure, we get a decrease in the number of children in poverty and an increase in the number of seniors in poverty?

  • 12:15:07


  • 12:15:08

    NNAMDIKat Aaron is a project editor with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication. She joins us for this discussion of measuring poverty with Jenny Reed, policy analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and Sheila Zedlewski, fellow at the Urban Institute. If you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think official poverty measures accurately reflect who is poor? 800-433-8850.

  • 12:15:37

    NNAMDIDo you think government benefit programs are adequate for the poor? You can also go to our website, Ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to Sheila Zedlewski, what is the poverty threshold for a family of four today?

  • 12:15:56


  • 12:15:58

    NNAMDI$22,000 for a -- for -- under the official measure, that does not change depending now where one happens to be living?

  • 12:16:07

    ZEDLEWSKIWell, that's another big difference with -- under the official poverty measure, you're right. It's the same across the country. So something we haven't talked about yet is the big change in the supplemental measure is that it varies by housing cost across the country and by housing cost in metro areas versus outside the metro areas by state. So it makes a big difference. For example, the Census Bureau shows poverty going up in the Northeast where housing costs are high. It shows poverty going down in the South where housing costs are lower.

  • 12:16:42

    NNAMDIJenny Reed, our region has, it is my understanding, one of the country's highest costs of living. How does that factor into who is poor in reality?

  • 12:16:53

    REEDWell, that's exactly right. I mean, everyone knows that it's very expensive to live in the District. And what that means under this new supplemental poverty measure, the fact that they're taking that high cost of living into account, we will probably see an increase in the number of people who are living below the poverty line because that threshold is going to jump up and be so much higher.

  • 12:17:17

    NNAMDIAs we said, we get a different look also at the elderly through this measure. What do you think that shows us?

  • 12:17:23

    REEDWell, I think that, you know, here in the District, we probably will see the poverty rate among the elderly go up because of those medical out-of-pocket expenses. Those are not factored into the current poverty threshold. And research has shown that those can be very significant for a lot of residents, especially elderly residents. So we'll probably see that number rise.

  • 12:17:45

    NNAMDIAnd, Kat, I wanted to underscore the point you made earlier that fewer children are below the poverty threshold because families and children benefit from social safety net programs like SNAP and other programs like that.

  • 12:17:57

    AARONYeah. Absolutely. They also -- I mean, there's women, infant and children benefit is factored in, school lunch subsidies, those are incorporated, although, of course, on the expenses side, childcare costs are also subtracted. So this new measure would also reflect the expense of a working parent and then the money that they would spend on childcare.

  • 12:18:18

    AARONAnd going forward, it's going to be an interesting issue as we watch this number change over the coming years, particularly given the potential expiration of expanded tax credits, so the expanded earned income tax credit, the expanded child tax credit, which, of course, are not guaranteed to continue.

  • 12:18:37

    NNAMDIAnd I guess this is where the rubber meets the road or where the analysis and policy intersect. Sheila Zedlewski, it's my understanding, that the supplemental poverty measure is intended to help policymakers look at the effectiveness of social safety net programs. Can you, please, explain?

  • 12:18:55

    ZEDLEWSKIThat's right. Under the supplemental poverty measure, for example, you can see that the food stamp program is reducing child poverty by approximately 4 percentage points. So if we didn't have that program, we'd see a lot higher poverty among children. So you can look at all the different programs, see how well they're doing. You can look at gaps in the safety net and see where maybe we need to do more. For example, when you look at seniors, you know, their income primarily is from Social Security when they're retired, and relatively few get food stamp benefits. And that's about it.

  • 12:19:36

    ZEDLEWSKISo that's one of the things that's going on here is very poor seniors don't have a way to draw upon a broad safety net of benefits.

  • 12:19:46

    NNAMDIHere is Ella in Washington, D.C. Ella, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:50

    ELLAHi. You may have already addressed this, but I'm a social worker. And I see very often families who just barely are eligible for benefits, and, very often, you know, they're not eligible by a few dollars because of the outdated nature of the federal poverty guidelines. And I'm very concerned with using kind of transient measures such as EITC and SNAP and that kind of things to measure what the real face of poverty looks like. So is there any concern about addressing that in reporting on this data?

  • 12:20:32

    NNAMDIJenny Reed, I was wondering about that as I looked at this data because, while it includes costs like childcare and out-of-pocket medical expenses and taxes, that's one thing for people who find themselves below the poverty threshold. For those people who are technically above the poverty threshold, this stuff, it erodes income, and it makes very difficult for those who are -- as our caller is pointing out, who are just barely above the poverty line, does it not?

  • 12:20:58

    REEDWell, I think that brings up a good point, that this is still a measure of poverty, and it's a measure of, you know, people who are really struggling to get by. But it's not telling us, you know, exactly how much do families need to not be on these programs. And if you look at that, you're seeing that families, like, in the District, require a -- you know, a significant wage just to get by. We're talking about, you know, about $58,000 a year to support a family here in D.C.

  • 12:21:29

    REEDAnd with the huge prevalence of low-wage jobs here in the District, for many families, even though they may be working full-time, they still are struggling to get by.

  • 12:21:38


  • 12:21:39

    ZEDLEWSKIThat's another benefit of this supplemental poverty measure because, when you look at the distribution of income around the poverty threshold, you see a much larger cluster of families who are in what we call the low-income group. That is between 100 and 200 percent of poverty. That really rises dramatically across the country to 32 percent from 19 under the official poverty measure.

  • 12:22:05

    ZEDLEWSKISo the caller is right. These benefits phase out just above poverty generally, and -- but I want to point that this supplemental measure, I think, also gives you a better picture of what's going on there.

  • 12:22:16


  • 12:22:17

    AARONI think it's also just worth reiterating that this supplemental measure will not be used to determine eligibility for benefit programs. So I think, partly in recognition, that these benefits may be, as our caller says, transient. This measure will not be used for that purpose.

  • 12:22:33

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can, however, call us. Do you -- tell us your anecdotal experience. Do you see poverty increasing or decreasing where you live? 800-433-8850, or go to our website, Ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:54

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, it is your turn. Should Joe Paterno have been fired or not? And the kidnapping of the Washington Nationals catcher in Venezuela -- it'll be your turn. Right now, we're discussing poverty in general and the new supplemental poverty measure in particular with Jenny Reed, policy analyst with D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Kat Aaron is a project editor with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

  • 12:25:23

    NNAMDIAnd Sheila Zedlewski, fellow at the Urban Institute. Kat, we've been hearing a lot about poverty since the start of the great recession. Does this bring -- this new measure bring a new focus into helping us understand who is poor?

  • 12:25:37

    AARONI think it does, although I think it's, you know -- as Sheila referred to, it's definitely worth emphasizing that the people who are at or around the poverty line, whether it's the official one or the supplemental, are by no means the only people who are struggling. Living at 200 percent of the poverty line, as many people are, is still incredibly difficult. We've also seen a large rise in the number of families that are living below 50 percent of the poverty line.

  • 12:26:04

    AARONSo for a family of four living on $11,000 a year, that's been a really startling development, I think, over the last couple of years of the recession.

  • 12:26:13

    NNAMDIAllow me to go the telephones. We'll start with Merriam in Arlington, Va. Merriam, your turn.

  • 12:26:20

    MERRIAMGood morning, Kojo. I wanted to thank you for the story. And you asked for an anecdote, and I have one for you. I met a young lady in Arlington that was working the polls over the -- during the elections.

  • 12:26:34

    NNAMDIOn Tuesday.

  • 12:26:35

    MERRIAMAnd she -- yes, on Tuesday, and she shared with me her story. She is beautiful, articulate, lovely African-American girl who was working here in Arlington. But she said she'd been homeless five times in the past year and that often what she finds herself doing is living on people's couches or accepting the kindness of people for a period of time. Gentlemen, it's much more difficult to accept their kindness, and with women, they get tired of her being there.

  • 12:27:06

    MERRIAMAnd she can't afford a place of her own. She's trying, but that's homelessness. And I asked her how she ended homeless, and she said that, you know, when she was 16 years old, her mother died. And then she was awarded to her stepfather, and then he died. And then her grandmother said, you know, we really don't have room for you. And there you go.

  • 12:27:27

    NNAMDISo has she been trying to find work? Has she been working before? Was she laid off? Any other aspects of the story that you might want to share before I ask Jenny Reed to comment?

  • 12:27:36

    MERRIAMUnderemployed. Yeah, underemployed. I think, you know, you can get retail jobs, jobs at Starbucks, things like that as you're working towards your career. We had a lot of people that were working the polls on Tuesday. They were paid poll workers that were from Georgetown, educated to a couple with science degrees that could not get a job.

  • 12:27:58

    NNAMDIJenny Reed, care to comment on that?

  • 12:27:59

    REEDYeah. You know, unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story here in the D.C. region. We really have a tale of two economies here. And if you have an advanced degree, you probably have a pretty well-paying job, and the economy here works very well for you. If, on the other hand, you maybe have a high school diploma or less, or you struggle to get in and out of poverty, the economy here is very, very tough.

  • 12:28:25

    REEDYou know, unemployment, for those with a high school diploma or less, is at some of the highest levels that we've seen in the last 30 years, and, certainly, the recession has made it much worse. Typically, you know, some of the jobs that Merriam mentions that the woman she met, where she worked, those are just jobs that aren't going to pay enough for you to be able to get by here in the District.

  • 12:28:48

    REEDAt $13 an hour maybe, you're going to be able to afford about half of what it actually costs to live here in D.C. In fact, if you actually wanted to afford a two-bedroom apartment, it's about $1,500 here in D.C. You would need to earn $29 an hour just to be able to do that.

  • 12:29:04

    NNAMDISheila Zedlewski.

  • 12:29:06

    ZEDLEWSKII just want to add to that, that our safety net also typically fails single people. For example, the only safety bet -- net benefit that's universal is food stamps, and that's a pretty small benefit, not enough to live on or certainly pay for your housing. But a lot of people also don't realize that an awful lot of unemployed don't qualify for unemployment insurance. Their work history maybe wasn't long enough, maybe they're young, they just didn't get in the labor market long enough before the recession hit, so we really do have a lot of people who are struggling to get by with help from friends.

  • 12:29:41

    NNAMDIKat Aaron.

  • 12:29:43

    AARONI also just want to note that the supplemental poverty measure has an expanded definition of a household unit as compared to the official measure, which does include co-habiting adults -- probably not someone who's moving around as much as the young woman described by the caller, but people who are living together but are not related by marriage or birth would be captured now in a way that they weren't before.

  • 12:30:05

    AARONAnd that the Census Bureau experts that I spoke with in reporting the stories that I did on this issue said that that may be one reason why African-American families are shown to have a lower rate under the supplemental poverty measure than they are in the official measure because they may be more likely to be doubled up in that circumstance.

  • 12:30:25


  • 12:30:27

    ZEDLEWSKIYes. That makes a lot of sense. Where you live, who you live with, that affects your poverty status.

  • 12:30:35

    AARONIt also gives a chance for gay families to be reflected in the household units in a way that wasn't captured before.

  • 12:30:41

    NNAMDISheila, this new measure is complicated by the data that is needed. How is that data collected?

  • 12:30:47

    ZEDLEWSKIWell, you're absolutely right. Primary source of the data is what's called the Current Population Survey, which is a household survey done across the country. It's representative. It's done every single year. And this year, for the first time -- or actually started last year, they actually asked people what their out-of-pocket health care spending was. We really didn't have data on that in this population survey before, and that has facilitated this supplemental poverty measure.

  • 12:31:20

    ZEDLEWSKIBut there are other things that needs -- that aren't on any survey. For example, you need an estimate of what people owe in taxes, what they get in credits back from the government if they qualify for a refundable credit. So it's a pretty complicated set of statistical programs and thinking and additional data that need to go into this measure.

  • 12:31:45

    NNAMDIHere is Steve in Germantown, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:31:51

    STEVEHello, Kojo.

  • 12:31:52

    NNAMDIHi, Steve.

  • 12:31:52

    STEVEI always listen, but, whenever I do, always enjoy your show.

  • 12:31:56

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:31:57

    STEVEYou know, I just -- I'm a CPA. I've done well. I came from poverty. I'm white. I worked my way up. And I think all this talk about $11,000 and these numbers doesn't even begin to address what is actually going on with poor people. I live with them. I work with them. Okay? I know them to death. And as I hear these commentators talk about these things, it just describes numbers, and I'm a CPA. Trust me, I love numbers.

  • 12:32:32

    STEVEThey're missing a huge point in a big part of the picture in talking about the safety net. Tell you what, I am what I am, and my net worth -- I'm above a million, okay? I am what I am because I had to work three jobs because I had to make X amount per year. And if you multiply that and assume I only worked 40 hours -- I don't think I worked 40 hours a week my entire life always poor. That made me what I am today.

  • 12:33:03


  • 12:33:03

    STEVEMost successful people...

  • 12:33:05

    NNAMDIAnd from the...

  • 12:33:05 will hear stories of parents that worked three jobs...

  • 12:33:10

    NNAMDIAnd most poor people, what kind of stories will you hear?

  • 12:33:13

    STEVEAnd the social engineering people, like you have on there now, are trying to ascribe some quality of life. Tell you what, you don't get to kiss your kids every day when they're awake. You get to work, and you get to make something of your life (unintelligible).

  • 12:33:28

    NNAMDIWhat you seem to be suggesting, Steve, because we're running out of time, very quickly, is that those people are poor because they don't work hard enough.

  • 12:33:38

    STEVEThere's -- you know, there's a million reasons why they're poor, okay. But they, individually, need to figure it out and figure if they're willing to do what it takes to stop being poor or not. I know people that are not willing to do what it takes to stop being poor.

  • 12:33:57

    NNAMDIOh, I know people like that, too. But, Jenny Reed, the question is, when we know an individual or two who seems to be unwilling to do what it needs to be done in order to escape from poverty, does that, in fact, represent a profile of the poor?

  • 12:34:14

    REEDNo. I don't think it does. I think that, you know, these programs are designed to help people move forward. They're designed to get people access to job training or help provide -- put food on their table while they're trying to, you know, earn an advanced degree. So these programs are really designed to help people get back on their feet, help move ahead and hopefully not have to rely on the programs for a long time.

  • 12:34:36

    REEDBut, you know, as I mentioned earlier, D.C. is a really tough place to be if you do not have an advanced degree. It's very difficult to get a job right now if you have a high school diploma or less. And you can work two, three jobs, and you still might not be able to afford all the basics here in the District.

  • 12:34:55

    NNAMDIKat Aaron.

  • 12:34:56

    AARONI talk to people all over the country every day from all walks of life with different levels of education, and I have been doing that for the last two years in my capacity as an investigative reporter working on these issues. And I regularly talk to people who would kill to work two or three jobs, but that's, for most people, not an option. It's not even an option to work one job or one part-time job.

  • 12:35:19

    AARONAnd I recognize that there may be people who are frustrated that other people are depending on these social benefit programs, but I can also tell you, from talking to people who depend on them every day, it's no cakewalk.

  • 12:35:32

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. We move on to Kate in Washington, D.C. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:38

    KATEHi, Kojo. Just quickly to respond to the last caller. I do think he kind of inadvertently reflected what your speakers are saying, that, you know, as a white male with an advanced degree, he has done well. And I would kind of question what kind of quality of life he was advocating where you don't get to kiss your kids every day. But I moved here from the West Coast a couple of years ago, and I was shocked at the cost of living in D.C.

  • 12:36:01

    KATEI've lived in San Francisco. I've lived in New York. I've lived in Seattle. And I took a 10 percent pay cut to get a job here, and my cost of living went up 40 percent. I do have advanced degrees. I have two Ivy League graduate degrees, and I barely get by. My savings are gone. The cost of health care, my employer -- the cost of our health care share went up and up, and the rents were very high. The cost of food is high.

  • 12:36:25

    KATESo I'm glad to see that the poverty index, that, hopefully, we're starting to address, and I want to see actual cost of living today and not it was from the '20s or '30s, things like housing and child care and health care.

  • 12:36:38

    NNAMDIOkay. Kate, thank you very much for your call. Care to comment on that, Jenny Reed?

  • 12:36:42

    REEDWell, I think Kate brings up a very good point. I mean, you know, affordable housing is really difficult to come by in D.C., no matter, you know, where you are in your life. And, unfortunately, one of the things we've seen in the last couple years during the recession, with state budgets being as tight they are, the District, in fact, has really cut back on commitments and investments in affordable housing. And, you know, the private market just isn't building it. And so it's really important that we step up to fill a really basic need here in D.C.

  • 12:37:12

    NNAMDISheila Zedlewski, Europe uses a simple poverty measure, people earning below a certain amount. Are there those that feel that a measure that's easier to calculate and understand still has value?

  • 12:37:23

    ZEDLEWSKII definitely think there are people who think it has value. There are many different ways in measuring poverty. For example, in Western European countries, they use a relative measure of poverty, which is income relative to the median wage in the economy. Our safety nets are much more complicated here in the United States than they are there, and we have a pretty complicated picture that we're really asking people to work.

  • 12:37:54

    ZEDLEWSKIAnd I agree with the other speakers that everybody wants to work and they want to work multiple jobs if they could. That's the only way out of poverty, but we need a little help to get by. And the last caller mentioned health care, which many people don't have, and the Affordable Care Act will change some of that. But, generally, if you're a just a single person, non-elderly, you don't have paid health care either. So it's a really complicated picture. And, I think, the measure -- the new measure is more up to the task of painting a realistic picture of what's happening.

  • 12:38:37

    NNAMDIIt may be up to the task, but are there, nevertheless, concerns, Jenny Reed, among anti-poverty advocates about how these new numbers might be used?

  • 12:38:47

    REEDWell, I think that people are glad that we can take a look at the effectiveness of these anti-poverty programs. These new numbers will let us look at, you know, how do EITC, the earned income tax credit benefits, help people move out of poverty. What would happen if we increased the earned income credit? You know, but as I think was alluded to before in our discussion, I mean, it -- it's still a measure of poverty. It's still a measure of people who are struggling to get by.

  • 12:39:14

    REEDAnd so it is really important that we look at those who are just above and maybe, you know, 200 percent above the poverty threshold because those groups are still having a hard time meeting their basic needs, too.

  • 12:39:26

    NNAMDIAnd John in Washington, D.C. You're on the air, John. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:31

    JOHNGood afternoon, Kojo. I'm a third-generation, African-American Washingtonian living in Ward 2. My wife and I live in a very working-class or blue-collar part of Ward 2, own a home, both come from very impoverished communities, and one of the things we discuss all the time is the social safety net is the problem. We need a social springboard.

  • 12:39:50

    JOHNInstead of giving folks benefits that don't force them and encourage them to go out and do more, we give them benefits that allow them to stay comfortable in their current location. And my wife and I had to work two and three jobs while getting our bachelor's degrees and our master's degrees. And we bought a home without -- and still have to help out our parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and others. But we see the folks around us who aren't forced to make the tough decisions we made.

  • 12:40:13

    JOHNAnd we keep on hearing that we should pay more so that those who aren't working as hard can live the same quality of life that we...

  • 12:40:19

    NNAMDIBut, John, you said you live in a working-class blue-collar community, and then you also said that the folks around you aren't making the same kind of effort you are. It seems to me that if you live in a working-class, blue-collar community, then those people are going to work every single day at blue-collar jobs and having a hard time making ends meet. You seem to be suggesting that they're not doing enough.

  • 12:40:39

    JOHNNo. What I mean by that is I live in Ward 2 off of New Jersey Avenue.

  • 12:40:43


  • 12:40:44

    JOHNSome folks in my community are -- it's kind of a transition neighborhood. Some folks have jobs working very hard, but a lot of the blue-collar folks there can't afford to purchase homes in areas where they've been renting for 10, 20, 30 years. They can't afford to make the next -- to purchase homes, purchase cars and improve their quality of life. But they're not making the kinds of decisions to do more.

  • 12:41:03

    JOHNThey're being comfortable because of the social safety nets that are allowing them to stay complacent where they are. And then these things will be problematic that we're not talking about changing how they're forced to live or how we're forced to live to benefit us all instead of just benefiting a few of us.

  • 12:41:17

    NNAMDIDon't know if you have a final comment on that, Sheila Zedlewski.

  • 12:41:21

    ZEDLEWSKII just want to add that our safety net, really, over the last two decades has moved much more towards encouraging work and helping people move up the ladder. Our welfare program called TANF really is all about work and helping people get back to work and having work requirements. The earned income tax credit is really helping people who are out there working to increase their earnings a little bit until they get higher up the ladder. So I think the caller is reflecting, really, changes in the safety net that have happened over the last two decades.

  • 12:42:00

    NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sheila Zedlewski is a fellow at the Urban Institute. Sheila Zedlewski, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:42:07

    ZEDLEWSKIYou're welcome. Thank you.

  • 12:42:08

    NNAMDIJenny Reed is a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute that looks at budgets and tax issues and policies affecting low income residents. Jenny Reed, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:42:17

    REEDThank you for having me.

  • 12:42:18

    NNAMDIAnd Kat Aaron is a project editor with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication. Kat, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:42:26

    AARONMy pleasure.

  • 12:42:27

    NNAMDIWhen we come back, Your Turn. Just one issue that we are looking at: Should the university -- Penn State University board of trustees have fired Joe Paterno or not? 800-433-8850. You can start calling right now, sending email to or sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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