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IPP’s Cost of Living: A better measure

Posted April 6th, 2016 to Blog

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Why do we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research at the Iowa Policy Project? One reason is accuracy — to offer a better picture of what it takes to get by, rather than a vague concept of “poverty.”

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. But those official guidelines have challenges that we address with basic-needs budget calculations in The Cost of Living in Iowa.

The federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago.

For example, the calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food.

Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[1] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.[2]

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 below shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines.

Figure 1. Cost of Living is Much Higher than the Poverty Level

Fig 1 pov guideline comp

In fact, family supporting income in the absence of public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 2.1 to 3.3 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families, in other words, actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs.[3]

[1] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[2] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[3] Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two parent family with one worker. (That family type not shown here.)
2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2016 Edition.
Peter Fisher is a nationally recognized expert on tax and economic development policy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.