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What Does It Mean to Be Poor in a Rich Society?

  • Robert Haveman
  • September 2008
  • DP1356-08

This paper is available in a volume in fall 2009, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies, co-edited by Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger and published by the Russell Sage Foundation.

In 2007, Mollie Orshansky, whose contributions led to the nation’s official poverty measure, passed away. Given the data available in the early-1960s, the Orshansky poverty measureùbased on family money income and an absolute poverty thresholdùmade perfect sense. President Johnson had declared a War on Poverty in 1964, and the nation needed a statistical picture of the poor. Since this time, the U.S. official poverty measure has stood nearly unchanged. This, in spite of extensive efforts designed to improve the measurement of both financial means and the poverty threshold. In this paper, the author attempts to broaden the discussion of poverty and poverty measurement. He first discusses the broad question of ‘what is poverty?’ and describes various poverty concepts that have been proposed. He then describes the official U.S. poverty measure, highlights its main characteristics, and notes some of the criticisms directed toward it. Finally, he examines broader conceptions of poverty and deprivation. The paper ends with a modest proposal for the development of a broader measure of poverty and social exclusion for the United States.


Poverty Measurement, State & Local Measures, U.S. Poverty Measures