Measuring Poverty with a Yardstick

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” is more than 50 years old, and has been marked by improvements and setbacks. Photo from LBJ Library, used with permission.

It’s been more than 50 years since President Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated the so-called “War on Poverty,” and in that time quite a few things have changed — but poverty hasn’t been one of them. Yes it’s had its ups and downs, and times when it was doing better or worse relative to other years, but overall it’s still very much with us — and sadly at levels close to what they were during Johnson’s time.

If we look at the chart above, we can see that poverty was high in 1964, when LBJ introduced his legislation, and shortly started to decline. But then the years since have followed an uneven path of hills and valleys.

Disturbingly, children of color — especially Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans — are more likely to live below the poverty level, or within deep poverty, a state characterized by half as many resources as poverty.

Tracing the poverty line, though, and who’s under it — what percentage of the population is — is an incomplete view. There are many other things to gain from looking at poverty figures in ways other than from year to year persistence (the level, by the way, is adjusted annually for inflation).

Source: Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There are poverty rates by race and ethnicity, which we can see from the above graph proceed in more or less the same pattern from year to year. Whites and Asians consistently enjoy lower poverty levels than Blacks and Hispanics. In a previous article about compound poverty we’ve shown that while this is true about year-to-year income, the difference is even more stark when it comes to asset or wealth accumulation over time by race and ethnicity. Whites and Asians far outpace Blacks and Hispanics, disturbingly so. (Read the eye-opening “Toxic Inequality,” by Thomas Shapiro, Ph.D. on this. It’s shocking how pervasive these inequalities are.)

Source: Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But child poverty is perhaps even more disturbing. Its rates are higher than adult poverty, higher than senior poverty — and they too follow this same racial and ethnic distribution. We’ve covered in previous articles, including one on single mothers, that children of color are more likely to live below the poverty level, and it’s obvious again from the above graph.

Black children playing on a playground on the South Side of Chicago in 1973. John H. White, photographer. Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

(The Annie E. Casey Foundation has more information about the unequal distribution of child poverty across the U.S., here. And the nonprofit National Center for Children in Poverty has a wealth, no pun intended, of useful data tools to help you learn more about child poverty in your state.)

Source: Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Another graph from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison shows that the poverty rate for women stays consistently higher than that of men over time.

Separate graphs show the South as having the highest level of poverty over time, compared to other regions in the U.S. (poverty levels are lower in the West, Midwest and Northeast, in declining order); and what they term “central cities” having the highest poverty levels in the U.S., followed by rural America, with suburbs enjoying the most favorable rates.

What stands out most is how consistently groups perform over time — there aren’t a lot of surprises year-to-year, except for peaks and troughs. Childhood poverty is always higher than adult poverty, female poverty higher than male, Black and Hispanic higher than Asian and White, central city poverty higher than rural or suburban poverty, and poverty in the South higher than the West, Midwest or Northeast.

Two boys in a neighborhood of “poor white Southerners, Chicago, 1974.” Danny Lyon, photographer. Source: U.S. National Records and Archive Administration.

Another surprise has been learning from the history that setting a poverty level at all was subject to controversy, and quite a bit of pushback. (There’s a fascinating article about this, “From Hunter to Orshansky: An Overview of (Unofficial) Poverty Lines in the United States from 1904 to 1965,” on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website.)

There are also several poverty levels or terms associated with gradations within poverty:

“Deep poverty,” the most extreme, set at 50 percent of the poverty level, effectively meaning half the resources available to individuals or families at the poverty line;
“Poverty,” theoretically set to 100 percent of the poverty level, a figure that changes from year to year;
“Near poverty,” the figure between 100 percent and 124 percent of the poverty level. This is an important distinction because many social services’ availability is capped at 125 percent above poverty.
“Low income,” the figure less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

Learning about poverty in your local area, or comparing it across the country, doesn’t have to end here, though. There are several dynamic tools that provide a more 3-dimensional view of what poverty looks like.

The Distressed Communities Index takes a look at the economic and social health of U.S. cities. Maps are available for 2017 and 2016.

One is the Distressed Communities Index, developed by the Economic Innovation Group, that takes a look at several metrics important to a city’s health, and then compares it across the country. They have maps for 2016 and 2017 available on their site, and a data visualization in Tableau Public shows the top 15 distressed counties in the U.S., here.

What the Hardship Index, using a formula from the Brookings Institution, looks like for San Antonio. For more information, read “The Geography of Poverty,” here. Map by Lily Casura (Tableau Public).

Another is the Brookings Institution’s Hardship Index, developed in the 1970s as a way to contrast U.S. cities. Urban researchers have recreated it for Chicago, here, and I’ve done it for San Antonio as well, here. The Hardship Index takes a look at six metrics important to a city’s health. Most of it overlaps with Distressed Communities Index’s metrics, with a few differences in orientation.

A third important index is the Centers for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index, which looks at factors that would contribute to an area’s difficulty in bouncing back from a natural or man-made disaster, including climate change.

It’s possible to look at each of these indices and learn something about your city — and even more so when you’re able to look at all three of them together. Each adds its own nuance to understanding the bigger picture of how poverty conditions affect resilience.

Seguing a bit from social vulnerability, using the public health lens of “social determinants of health” — many of which are strongly linked to poverty — is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, also known as “ACEs.” ACEs is sometimes called “the largest public health study you’ve never heard of,” and introduces the idea that various forms of childhood trauma act as barriers to adult health and wellness, both physically and psychologically. These traumas aren’t strictly associated with just poverty — they can be experienced by anyone at any economic level — but poverty may make it more difficult to mitigate some of their consequences. As more and more cities across the U.S. explore becoming trauma-informed communities, familiarity with and interest in the ground-breaking ACEs work will undoubtedly spread.

So while the percentages of who lives in poverty haven’t necessarily changed much since LBJ’s time, we do have a number of ways to visualize poverty in our communities more effectively — which can be the first step in really addressing it from a more holistic perspective.

NOTE: This article is part of an ongoing series on “unpacking poverty,” that started here.