Not everyday do we associate New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s name with poverty. The man is worth some 11 billion dollars, having made his fortune first at Salomon Brothers and later his own firm, Bloomberg, L.P. But, yesterday he proposed a new way to measure poverty that is worthy of much attention.
It tells you something about how little Americans are concerned with poverty that the past time the federal government revised the manner in which it calculates poverty was 1969. This measure, in turn, is critical to determining benefits for a host of anti-poverty programs. So, if it is wrong, the anti-poverty measures may, or may not, be going to the people who need them most.
Under Bloomberg’s proposal, the new measure would take account of the changed ways people spend limited resources. The old measure focused primarily on how much of a person’s income goes towards buying food. In 1969, a third of household income in a poor home might go to food but that same poor home today might spend only one-eight of its income on food. But transportation and housing now take a bigger chunk out of the poor’s household budget.
Attempts to help the poor always have unintended consequences. Section 8 Housing vouchers were devised to provide an alternative to the large housing projects that had become centers of crime and violence. But, as a recent, and brilliantly reported, article in Atlantic Monthly showed, the vouchers have done a better job re-distributing crime and violence to various neighborhoods than in reducing it overall.
The most distressing part of Bloomberg’s announcement was that while the old method calculated that 18.9 percent of New York City’s population lived under the poverty line, the new method revealed that 23 percent of Gotham’s population did. Both numbers are shocking. And, while the new method evidently showed that fewer people live in extreme poverty, a testament to the effectiveness of some anti-poverty programs, there is clearly much work to be done.
The importance of the Bloomberg proposal is that we need accurate ways to measure poverty if we are even to begin to devise useful strategies to attack it. And, the mayor’s intervention comes in the wonkish language that most policy experts find familiar. If only our politicians could come up with a moral language appropriate for such a shameful enormity as having 23 percent of the people in the nation’s largest city living in poverty.
Michael Sean Winters