Am I the 99% or the 47%?

Last week, the Brookings Institution released a paper by Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame  which shows improvement in poverty gaps and deep poverty in the U.S.  The paper looks at how consumption measures better identify who is impoverished than do income measures and concludes that government programs have been effective in combating poverty and decreasing the number of impoverished Americans. It finds that tax policies (particularly those favorable to families, like the earned income tax credit), SNAP (food stamps) and Social Security have most benefited the poor.

The report is getting a some play on the internet this week: Freakonomics, Slate, Global Economics Watch Blog

I personally spent part of my work day reading it and thinking about how to apply it to my work. I found it particularly interesting to come home to more chatter about Romney’s disdain for people of ordinary, modest or no means.

For contrast, here is the Shriver Brief take on the census data and poverty.

I am taking a statistics course this semester and so questions of facts, interpretations, and how choice of metric affects conclusions is right at the front of my head. I came to Meyer & Sullivan’s report from a misleading blurb which presented the article not as an analysis of poverty measures but as a ringing endorsement of government programs in the “war on poverty”.  Which, of course, it really isn’t. The paper recognizes where programs are successful and where they are not, but focuses on the measurement of poverty, arguing that if we look at the right information, we’ll see that poverty is, in fact, on the decline.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I wonder if it’s not time to create a metric of “standard of living security”—like “food security”—which looks at stability of income, potential for long-term employment, availability of retirement benefits, health benefits, and availability of crisis networks to really judge how well-off the people in our society are.


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