Poverty Measurement: Introduction

In March 2010, the federal government released information on a proposed Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) to offer a more complete picture of the depth and demographics of poverty, as well as the effects of public investments such as food assistance and tax credits on poverty rates. The SPM will not replace the current measure, but rather it will provide a different view of poverty and effectiveness of public antipoverty policies. The SPM is a work in progress, to be informed by the research and evaluation of poverty scholars.

In addition to federal efforts to revise the national measure, many states and localities have expressed interest in developing more meaningful poverty measures for their own area. New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity, the State of New York, and IRP (for the State of Wisconsin and local areas) have also developed place-specific measures, based on work from federal researchers, to capture the impact of antipoverty programs and better reflect the costs of living in different locations.

The first official U.S. poverty measure was developed in the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the "War on Poverty," with the understanding that poverty must be assessed and quantified if it is to be reduced. IRP was also established at that time, charged with conducting interdisciplinary research into the causes, consequences, and cures of poverty.

For more background information on poverty measurement research in the U.S., visit the IRP FAQs: "How is poverty measured in the United States?," "What are poverty thresholds and guidelines?," and "Who is poor?" Also, see our research page on the history of poverty measurement.

An important part of IRP’s work has been to review existing poverty measures and develop alternative ones. The literature critiquing the official measure and suggesting alternative methods is large and includes many contributions from IRP researchers (see our FAQ #2, "How is poverty measured in the United States?" for more on this topic). Most poverty scholars agree that the official measure should be revised, although there is disagreement as to the best alternative.

For recent newspaper articles on poverty measurement, check the IRP Poverty Dispatch: "Poverty Measurement."