Bloomberg aide gives poverty gauge speech

July 13, 2008 6:37:46 PM PDT
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is offering a new way of gauging poverty in the United States. Bloomberg had planned to discuss the city's alternative to the current federal poverty measure in a speech Sunday evening at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People national convention. However, his office said bad flying weather forced him to cancel his appearance.

Bloomberg, who says the 1960s-developed federal formula for deciding who is living below the poverty line is outdated, said in prepared remarks that were released by his office: "If we're serious about fighting poverty, we also have to start getting serious about measuring it."

A deputy mayor, Linda Gibbs, in town to give an earlier briefing on the new measure, spoke briefly to the convention for Bloomberg.

New York's new measure factors in more costs than the current one, which is heavily weighted to grocery spending, Gibbs said. The city's version counts tax credits and other government benefits, while adjusting for geographic differences such as housing costs.

The new formula provides "a more accurate picture of who is poor and what that word means - today - in 2008," Bloomberg said in his prepared text.

The city's Center for Economic Opportunity, established by Bloomberg in 2006, used Census data, earlier research into the federal measure and poverty experts to come up with the new threshold last week.

City officials can't use the new measurement in programs that receive federal and state funding, so it won't immediately change funding or eligibility for city social services programs, but will help in anti-poverty policy and planning, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said.

A telephone message The Associated Press left for U.S. Census Bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein Sunday night was not immediately returned.

Under the federal formula, which is $20,444 for a family of four, some 19 percent of New Yorkers are considered poor, city officials said. Under the new formula, which takes into account New York's high cost of living, the poverty line is at $26,138 and 23 percent of New Yorkers are below it.

The new measure indicates a larger proportion of the city's poor is elderly, and that more working families are under the poverty line than in the federal measure. It has slightly lower poverty rates for children living in single-parent homes and people living in extreme poverty, indicating government programs are helping, officials said.

New York will offer help to other cities that are interested in the measurement. Bloomberg, who considered an independent presidential run this year, also urged the presidential candidates to make poverty a priority issue in their campaigns.

"So in Washington, while there's a never-ending debate about how to confront poverty, there is hardly any clarity on who is actually poor," said Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, in the prepared text. "I spent most of my career in the private sector, and I'm a big believer in the saying, 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."' Some advocates say changing the federal poverty measure, which has been under study for years, is needed to better assess U.S. poverty and the impact of government programs, helping better target resources. How poverty is measured is politically sensitive because it helps determine eligibility for some federal programs.

New York's new approach likely will figure into upcoming congressional hearings into changing the federal formula, said Ron Haskins, a poverty expert for the Brookings Institution in Washington. He said revising the measure has proven difficult because distribution of federal benefits is at stake.

"There would be winners and losers," he said.