WHO'S poor - and who isn't? And how do you decide? The definitive answers to these deceptively difficult questions have eluded the United States for the quarter century since it began a broad array of antipoverty programs. They all require some way to identify the poor.
Now there are new answers, based on surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization. About 13 million more Americans are poor than the government says, according to this way of measure.
Who does it ask how much money is needed to be out of poverty? The public. ``The American public has at least as good an idea, and I believe better,'' as government in deciding this, says Rob Pollack, executive director of Families USA Foundation. It and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, both Washington-based nonprofit organizations, issued the new poverty report, based on pollings by the Gallup Organization.
The mythical American family of four needs $12,092 to be just above poverty, according to the official government way of measuring poverty. Any less and the family is officially poor.
Americans told Gallup that isn't enough money: $15,017, they said, should be the proper measure.
Using this measure millions more American children would be classified as poor: one in four, instead of one in five.
More elderly people would be poor, as well: one in four, instead of one in eight.
``When approximately one out of four persons at both ends of the [age] spectrum fall below what Americans consider poverty,'' Mr. Pollack says, ``it's time to reorder our national priorities.''
If these more generous measures were adopted more people would be helped, but the additional participants would swell the cost of government social programs. Given America's massive budget deficit and difficulty dealing with it, any such change in the poverty level is not conceivable for the foreseeable future.
This is not the first proposal to change the way of calculating poverty. For years liberals have sought to raise the poverty level. During the Reagan presidency conservatives sought to have nonmoney financial aid, such as food stamps, counted as income. This would have decreased the number of people in poverty.
The means of calculating the poverty level, originated in 1965, is still used today. The US government decided that anyone was poor whose income was less than three times the cost of a week's foodstuffs, as measured by the Agriculture Department. That formula was chosen largely because government needed some yardstick, and a survey several years before had indicated that average Americans spent one-third of their income on food.
If this formula ever was adequate it is not now, says Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. ``Times change,'' he notes, and the ratio of one kind of expense to another consequently changes. For instance, families now spend closer to one-fifth of their income on food, and much more on housing than 25 years ago, he points out.
The elderly are judged by a lower official poverty level than the rest of America on the assumption that they eat less and therefore pay less for food. But surveys indicate they have higher medical expenses, which are not taken into account. ``Poor elderly can't sustain themselves on the lower level,'' says Kathleen Scholl, senior economic coordinator of the American Association of Retired Persons.