Education Letter to the Editor

Redefining Poverty Upward

November 27, 2007 3 min read

To the Editor:

As a North Carolinian and a resident of Wake County, I read with interest your front-page Eye on Research story “South’s Schools Pass Milestone on Poverty” (Nov. 7, 2007).

The story highlights a report by the Southern Education Foundation that concludes low-income students now make up a majority of public school students in the South. The SEF’s claim is a surprising assertion and warrants further discussion. Are 49 percent of North Carolina school students really classified as low-income? It seems the figures don’t add up.

Using 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, our estimates found only 36 percent of North Carolina households with school-age children were eligible for the reduced-price school lunch program. In addition, using the same 2006 CPS data, our estimates revealed that only 14 percent of North Carolina households with school-age children had incomes below the federal poverty line.

This disagreement underscores the importance of understanding the terms of the policy debate. Although we may think the terms “poor,” “low-income,” and “poverty” are interchangeable, they are not. “Poor” is a relative term, used to compare groups. “Low-income” usually refers to families or persons whose incomes are on the low end of personal or per capita income. Increasingly, the term is defined as anywhere from 100 percent to 200 percent of the poverty level. And “poverty” implies incomes that fall below a government definition of a minimally adequate standard of living. The terms are different and distinct by definition. To use them interchangeably is misleading and confuses the public.

We’d do well to focus more of our attention on an issue that fuels much of the current debate: how the government calculates the official poverty measure. Public schools face growing challenges in educating low-income students, but many wonder about the methods the government uses to calculate the official poverty rate. Fact is, the official poverty rate takes no account of regional differences in such factors as wages, prices, and noncash benefits.

The last time I checked, Raleigh, N.C., and New York City had vastly different costs of living. Yet the formula the government uses to calculate the poverty rate treats these two cities equally. Is the official poverty level a valid, reliable indicator of poverty in our nation? Median family income for a family of four in North Carolina is $61,420 and has increased 9.5 percent since 1999. But, inexplicably, the official poverty rate depicts the last 30 years—a time of greatly rising living standards—as a time in which poverty has become ever more prevalent.

Such discrepancies have not gone unnoticed. The Census Bureau is seeking to develop an alternative poverty estimate that is more inclusive of real income and regional differences. However, the lack of regional price data may doom the project.

The SEF report concludes with a call for Southern states to provide additional resources to fund early-education programs and fight poverty. I disagree. While schools that serve large populations of poor students face different educational challenges, the use of ever-expanding thresholds and flawed indicators as a metric to gauge the scope of a problem misleads the public. And, if I may invoke a comparison to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous phrase “defining deviancy down,” these developments lead to defining poverty “up.”

No doubt any criticism of the SEF report and recommendations by anyone not on the left will be interpreted as a lack of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged. It shouldn’t. Continually redefining poverty upward deceives our citizens, breeds dependency, and wastes resources. A more helpful approach would be to expand economic opportunity, implement true structural reform of the public schools, effectively manage the impacts of immigration, and improve the workforce. Doing so would be a good first step in truly helping not only poor schoolchildren, but all our citizens.

Robert Luebke

Senior Policy Analyst

Civitas Institute

Raleigh, N.C.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Redefining Poverty Upward