The confusing world of poverty metrics


SNAP helps families buy essential food items, like milk.
SNAP helps families buy essential food items, like milk. AP

Poverty: a simple measurement that leads down an economic rabbit hole.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that although poverty rates dropped in Texas, numbers from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, haven’t reflected those changes.

In theory, only households considered under the federal poverty guideline should qualify for SNAP. In reality, only about half of Texas households using SNAP were under the poverty line in 2015.

As the statistics show this unbalanced seesaw, the question remains: What’s actually considered poverty?

The Census Bureau still uses an official poverty measure from the 1960s. The bureau has the experimental Supplemental Poverty Measure, created in 2009, which seems to use more realistic numbers.

Officially, the poverty rate was 13.5 percent in 2015. The experimental measure placed it at 14.3 percent.

Then there are two different metrics that can be considered “the federal poverty line.” One is called poverty thresholds, which are collected by the Census Bureau. The other is poverty guidelines used to determine “financial eligibility for certain federal programs” and which are issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The poverty thresholds used by the Census Bureau for statistical purposes are complex and are not composed of standardized increments between family sizes. Since many program officials prefer to use guidelines with uniform increments across family sizes, the poverty guidelines include rounding and standardizing adjustments in the formula,” says the website of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

SNAP uses the guidelines to determine eligibility, but they also have their own metrics for poverty.

For a family of four, the poverty guideline is about $24,000. So if a family makes about $27,000, they are considered out of poverty, but they could still qualify for SNAP.

The numbers simply don’t correlate well.

A family might be considered not poor by federal standards, but if they can’t afford meals without federal assistance, how is that not poverty?

And how does someone get out of this rabbit hole?

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut path, and there should be.