As Off-Kilter’s ongoing series continues, digging into why in the famous words of Audre Lorde, “self-care is political warfare,” we’re zooming out for this next episode to explore the goal of ending poverty in the United States—and the broader work of economic and social liberation—as self-care for the larger collective organism of which we are all part.
In this spirit, as Rebecca describes in this episode, she often thinks about advocates and activists for economic and social liberation as healers—healers of a collective organism that today is very sick—with one huge glaring symptom of that illness being widespread, needless poverty in the midst of plenty. Of course healers rely on good diagnostic tools—and this kind of “social justice advocacy as collective healing” framework can then help us understand something like a measure of poverty as a diagnostic tool—a tool that’s only as good at diagnosing social illness as what it measures and how it’s designed.
So to zoom in on what America’s broken official poverty measure has to do with self-care, Rebecca brought back three thought leaders who are deep experts in poverty measurement, all of whom have been working for years to bring attention to how outdated and flawed our leading diagnostic tool on this front (a.k.a. America’s Official Poverty Measure) is—and the importance of rethinking how we measure poverty in the United States. if we are serious about meaningfully eliminating it versus just putting a band-aid on a still-very-sick economy.
Shawn Fremstad is the director of law and political economy as well as a senior adviser at the Center for Economic Policy Research. Shailly Barnes is the policy director for the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. David Brady is a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, where he directs the Blum Initiative on Global and Regional Poverty; he’s also a fellow with the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
Follow Shailly @shaillybarnes, Shawn @shawnfremstad, and David @DaveBrady72 on Twitter
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I talk with visionary leaders working to disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
As Off-Kilter’s ongoing series continues digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare, I really enjoyed the chance to zoom out for this next episode to explore the goal of ending poverty in the United States and the broader work of economic and social liberation as self-care for the collective organism of which we’re all part. In this spirit, I’ll note that I often think about advocates and activists for economic and social liberation as healers, healers of a collective organism that today is very, very sick, with one huge, glaring symptom of that illness being widespread, needless poverty in the midst of plenty. Of course, healers rely on good diagnostic tools, and this kind of social justice advocacy as collective healing framework can then help us understand something like a measure of poverty as a diagnostic tool and a tool, I should note, that’s only as good at diagnosing social illness as what it measures and how it’s designed.
So, to help me zoom in on what America’s broken Official Poverty Measure has to do with self-care, I brought back three thought leaders who are deep experts in poverty measurement, all of whom have been working for years to bring attention to how outdated and flawed our leading diagnostic tool on this front—America’s Official Poverty Measure, or OPM, as it’s sometimes called—really is, and the importance of rethinking how we measure poverty in the U.S. if we’re serious about meaningfully eliminating it versus just putting a Band-Aid on a still very sick economy.
Shawn Fremstad is the director of law and political economy, as well as a senior advisor at the Center for Economic Policy [and] Research. Shailly Barnes is the policy director for the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights & Social Justice. And David Brady is a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, where he directs the Bluhm Initiative on Global & Regional Poverty. He’s also a fellow with the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Shawn and David, I should note, are both authors of a series of reports on poverty measurement published by The Century Foundation. And you can find those as well as a previous Off-Kilter episode featuring these three brilliant folks talking about America’s broken poverty measure in show notes as well. And I’ll just say, I hope you enjoy this conversation half as much as I did. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Shailly, David, Shawn, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show. And I have to say, I’ve really, really, really been looking forward to this conversation on a number of different fronts. But thanks to all of you for taking the time, and I think actually, for pitching this conversation if I’m remembering where this came from. I think it was the three of you who had the idea to do this.
So, I think just to get us started, I’m gonna, Shailly, I’m gonna actually bring you in first, and I’m gonna give each of you a chance to get in on this. But I feel like the right place to start is really to give each of you a chance to reintroduce yourselves to Off-Kilter’s listeners, to talk a little bit about how you come to this work. And given the nature of the conversation that we’re having today and that we’re going to be having, I’d love to give each of you the chance in the course of introducing yourselves to talk a little bit about how you understand ending poverty and the work that you’re each engaged in when it comes to economic liberation as a form of collective or macro level self-care. And so, I’m curious, do you each think of yourselves as healers of the collective? Is that part of how you understand your role as an advocate who does this type of work? So, Shailly, I’m gonna kick it to you to open us up here. And part of what I’m gonna do in doing that is I’m actually gonna bring in some of your words from our email when we were back and forthing about doing this episode, and you wrote, “We all suffer from the existence of poverty in the midst of plenty, abandonment in the midst of abundance, and we need to look at the two extremes of wealth and poverty side by side.” So, that was just a little bit of you starting to take us into that place that I think we’re all gonna go. But Shailly, over to you to start us off with introductions.
SHAILLY BARNES: Thank you, Rebecca. Good to be back here with you and with Shawn and Dave for this. So, I’m the policy director at the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights & Social Justice. And a big part of my work is also being the policy director for the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival, which we co-anchor with another organization called Repairers of the Breach. But I’ve been working with and for and alongside poor and dispossessed communities for nearly 20 years, coming out of a background in law and economics and human rights. And in fact, I’ve kind of been retrained in all of those disciplines through this work, through these past 20 years. And that really does frame how I come to this conversation on self-care and macro, as you said, macro self-care.
When you start to see, for instance, that poverty is legal but being poor is criminalized, or the hard work of keeping a home and family cared for is ignored economically when it’s in your own home and is exploited when it’s in another person’s home, and then we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet we accept an unimaginable amount of economic insecurity. By our account in the Poor People’s Campaign and at the Kairos Center, we count 100, 140 million people, 40 percent of the nation who are poor or one emergency away from financial ruin. And so, this is what I mean when, you know, to kind of address this question of self-care, we live in this context. We live in a context where millions of people are hungry, without adequate housing, without adequate healthcare. And there’s a deep sickness that we need to confront that, you know, confronting these extremes of wealth and poverty. How do we live in a society that accepts these extremes? And so, that’s how I’m coming into this conversation today.
VALLAS: I love that. And we’re gonna come back to the number that you offered in terms of how many poor people, quote-unquote “poor people,” you all, the Poor People’s Campaign, count, because obviously, the number that you all use is a little bit different than what the federal government uses. And there’s a lot of significance in that gap, so we’re gonna be coming back to that piece.
But Shawn, I’m gonna bring you next into introducing yourself. And you’ve been on this show a number of times over the years, but not in a minute. So, go ahead and reintroduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and anything you wanna offer about that collective or macro self-care healing frame that you may or may not think about explicitly as you understand your role in this work.
SHAWN FREMSTAD: Hi! Shawn Fremstad, director of law and political economy at the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, D.C. I, like Rebecca, started out as a lawyer in the civil legal services world doing a variety of landlord-tenant, welfare, family law issues, disability issues for low-income people. In my case, it was in northern Minnesota. I’m also from a kind of rural public employee union background, pretty secure middle class, but then also in a family where there was a lot of insecurity and precarity over the years, having a lot to do with disability and other factors.
I think this is such an interesting framing cause I think people probably wonder, well, what does poverty and poverty measurement have to do with self-care? But what strikes me is a little bit about how much of a conversation we’ve started to have about care and care infrastructure. Unfortunately, some of the big components to that have not passed Congress but got very close. And I also think that care really goes to the heart of issues around understanding poverty and what poverty is. I mean, ideally, the welfare state itself should be a caring state. It should be one that looks at all of its people and provides kind of dignity, equality, security. The old Swedish welfare state used to be called, one of the terms for it was “the people’s home,” and that’s a kind of evocative idea of the role of the state in helping create a home.
I think the other issue with the kind of care/poverty intersection is the way to which we focus so much on certain basic needs. And there are very fundamental things like food, housing, there’s utilities, transportation. All these are kind of explicitly recognized in some of our poverty measures, but we don’t really explicitly recognize even basic forms of care: healthcare, childcare, care of the self, really, through things like leisure activities. Development is part of that set of basic needs that we all have. And I think some of that is political. We don’t wanna, there, I think, are people who don’t wanna recognize that everything is not just quantifiable in dollars and cents, but the things like people’s time, the quality of, you know, and whether or not they have a guarantee of healthcare or health insurance that’s adequate, whether or not they have, their children have access to high quality early education. Those things are all about care in certain ways, and they’re really surprisingly absent from discussions of poverty.
VALLAS: I love all of that. And I actually, I know we’re gonna get into several of those threads as this conversation continues to emerge. But Dave, I wanna bring you in to introduce yourself as well. And you’re sort of the academic of the bunch.
DAVE BRADY: [laughs]
VALLAS: You’re here to keep us connected to the ivory tower just enough for this to be a podcast produced by a think tank. So, talk a little bit about how you come to this work and any reflections that you want to offer in terms of do you think about yourself as a healer of some type, given the work that you do at the collective level?
BRADY: Thanks, Rebecca. Thanks for having me on. My name’s Dave Brady. I’m a professor in the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside and also the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. And I’ve done research and taught and studied poverty social policy for a long time and increasingly have been really focused on health and well-being in regards to that. And one thing about your sentiment, Rebecca, that I really agree with is that we often lose sight that the ultimate reason we care about poverty is because it hinders well-being. It hurts people’s health, their care, their self, their well-being. And we get kind of fixated on income because that’s an important way to measure poverty, but we lose sight that the whole point is because like Amartya Sen used to say, income matters ‘cause it purchases well-being. So, you need economic resources to be well and to be healthy.
So, the way I think of it is sort of like Shawn says, that the healer of the collective, that the job of the state is to make sure that people have sufficient well-being, and the well-being itself should be the ultimate outcome we care about. We should care about poverty, not because there’s something existential about low income. We should care about poverty because if you’re poor, it’s very unlikely you’re gonna have sufficient well-being. So, I really would like us to keep well-being and health and survival as the key compass or North Star, if you will, for how we evaluate poverty policy. I think that’s really what should be our first priority.
VALLAS: I love that. And I feel like that’s a perfect segue way into the first tranche of this conversation that we’re gonna have here. And so, just to say that the last time that the three of you were on Off-Kilter together was last year, and we were talking about poverty measurement. We were talking about what is the federal government’s measure of poverty? Because as you were just noting, David, in a lot of ways we’ve sort of lost track as a sector really, maybe even as a whole society of understanding what it is that we are referring to or even up the level, the why behind why are we looking to reduce or perhaps eradicate poverty in the United States? And so, the last time you all were on the show, we were talking about poverty measurement, and in particular, we were talking a lot about, and you all were talking a lot about, the Official Poverty Measure, the quote-unquote “OPM,” that the federal government here utilizes and therefore that pretty much all of our federal policy responses to poverty and to a lot of other things as well are all scaffolded on top of. And so, I wanna just first of all, send folks back to that episode if anyone’s listening and has not actually already heard that episode. We’ve got a link to it in show notes. You can also just find it in our episode archive in whatever your podcast platform is. There’s a lot more there that we’re gonna be kind of building from in this conversation.
But I also wanna just invoke the spirit of another episode that we did last year that was with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice, the co-founders of Liberation in a Generation. We talked a lot about, in that conversation, the importance of moving beyond quote-unquote “cutting poverty” as the North Star that advocates operate from to a vision of economic liberation. And that the context in which we had that conversation was that if our North Star is quote-unquote “cutting poverty,” that underneath that North Star is actually a pretty pernicious limiting belief, which is that some amount of poverty is okay. And so, to the extent that our efforts as advocates who are seeking to build an economy that is one premised on shared abundance—and I think that speaks to all of us in how we approach this work—we have to think a lot about what does it look like when we get there, and how do we measure success along the way? And so, then how we measure and how we define poverty actually matters a lot when it comes to how successful we will ultimately be and what type of economy, what type of society we’re gonna end up building along the way. The metrics really, really matter. And so, that’s a big part of why I think we were all interested in coming back to this conversation and also coming back to it in the context of this stream of conversations we’ve been having about self-care in a way that bridges the micro and the macro.
So, David and then Shawn, I’m gonna bring you in as well, I feel like it’s important for anyone who hasn’t heard that prior episode about poverty measurement to lay a little bit of groundwork here in this conversation around how we currently measure poverty in the United States and the origins of that OPM, that Official Poverty Measure. Spoiler: It’s incredibly flawed. It has a lot of problems. That was really the throughline of that prior episode. But Dave, kick us off by a little bit of a refresher of how we currently measure poverty in the U.S. and what’s problematic about still using it today. And Shawn, you’ll get to comment as well.
BRADY: Yeah, I mean, it’s an amazing story, and it’s long forgotten and often forgotten history to how we came about this measure. But in the early ‘60s the Johnson administration is launching the War on Poverty, and they’re kind of looking around for an available measure of poverty. And it just so happened that a government statistician, Mollie Orshansky, had created this sort of rule of thumb measure that she never intended to be used for policy. She never would argue that it was this really rigorous scientific standard. It was just something she came up with as sort of a rule of thumb. And she was using data from the mid-1950s, and she was saying, look. Let me guess about a third of a family’s budget goes to food. So, if we use a food budget, we just multiply that times three. Ipso facto, we’ve got a good measure of poverty. So, what happened that was kind of stunning was that she never intended this to be used for policy, but the Johnson administration kind of liked it. And everyone forgets that they, instead of using what Orshansky used, they used what was called the economy food plan, which was 25 percent lower than the low-cost food budget that Orshansky had used. And so, they even created an even lower threshold than she was doing. And that economy food plan was supposed to be designed for very short-term emergency needs of food. And then they just kind of capped that number, and they installed that as the official measure of poverty. There was never any science really behind it. Orshansky was a very serious, smart statistician, but she was the most surprised. And it’s well covered by historians that she was perhaps the most surprised to see this adopted. And what’s kind of perverse is that just because arbitrarily it had got adopted, it became institutionalized and used to decide who qualifies for social policy and how the country’s doing in that collective healthcare or care of taking care of our population. So, it’s really a history that got locked in place.
VALLAS: Yeah. And Shawn, pick up there. You’re not just a student of the history here, but you’re also one of the leading advocates really pushing back on this Official Poverty Measure. Talk a little bit about your views on what’s so incredibly flawed about using that measure today.
FREMSTAD: Yeah, I could talk for an hour about this, so, and I don’t want to ‘cause it would be really boring! But I was gonna, you know, one thing I just wanted to add to what Dave said is people really forget this is basically Richard Nixon’s poverty measure. We could really think about it that way because it was the Nixon administration that made it official and said, we’re gonna do it this way. We’re gonna kind of lock it in place, and then only adjust it each year for inflation, regardless of how much more typical incomes rise, regardless of technological change, regardless of all these issues. So, a lot of the current stagnation, kind of inability to really upgrade and improve a measure dates back to that Nixon administration decision. And I think people have completely forgotten that.
So, I could say many things about this. We’ve done, you know, I did a big paper for The Century Foundation. I know David has done, did another paper on relative poverty measurement, which we tend to think is the best approach. But at the core is the problem that the poverty measure, the way it was designed, the way it was locked in, it has fallen further and further behind mainstream kind of typical income, not even talking about upper-middle-class incomes or whatever that have really gone to the top. And it’s just not a adequate 21st century measure of what it takes to have decent housing, have a diet that’s nutritious, have things like childcare and also really meet all these other things. I think as a country gets richer and richer—and the United States is very rich but also very unequal—you should be raising the floor in a way, kind of the floor of basic dignity, in a way that reflects that wealth and isn’t just kind of little dribs and drabs every year that you’re dropping on people at the bottom.
I just wanna connect to one other thing you said, Rebecca, about, you mentioned the word “economic liberation.” David talked about Amartya Sen, and I think there’s a real connection there. I mean, Sen also really thought about this from the frame of freedom, like what it means as an individual to have real choices, to be an agent, and how that really was part of well-being, fundamental to well-being, that you’re not stuck in these structures and income and basic needs being fundamental of that. And I think, again, we’re not, I think there’s a lot of caution about talking about the importance of freedom as this kind of economic core rights issue. But we have prior presidents, FDR, other people who really did have that kind of economic bill of rights type perspective and did view it that way.
VALLAS: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that, Shawn. And a theme that we’ve evoked throughout the last several months on this podcast is bringing in folks who I consider to be modern-day oracles like adrienne maree brown and others. And Sonya Renee Taylor, right, the notion that oppression is what happens when you’re living in someone else’s dream as opposed to being free to dream your own dream. And I think about those words a lot, and they really were coming through for me as you were just saying that. David, I know you wanted to get back in on this point as well.
BRADY: Yeah, I agree with everything Shawn said, and I forgot the Nixon point. That’s a good one. But one thing I always come back to is two things Rebecca’s long said. And one is that, look, the goal is well-being. We want people to have collective well-being. We want them to be well. And if we’re using this old-fashioned measure that never really had any anchor in science, we’re not doing a good job of predicting that well-being, and we really lose sight of that ultimate goal. Second thing I was gonna say is that the official measures led to all this really flimsy and questionable research on what it means to be deprived and poor. And it reminds me of something Rebecca often says about how poverty debates too often become like climate change debates, where there’s one side is denying that this reality even exists. So, I really think that the official measure, not only was it [bleep] from the beginning—I forgot about the Nixon origins—but it really leads to a lot of problems today. And we’re misclassifying tens of millions of people because of this old-fashioned measure.
VALLAS: Yeah. So, Shailly, that’s where I wanna bring you back in, right? So, here we are starting to put a little bit of meat on the bones around why are we having a conversation about poverty measurement and about actually redefining poverty and rethinking the way that we measure poverty in the United States in the context of macro self-care. And so, Shailly, I wanna ask you the question that I feel like we’re starting to circle around here of why does it matter how we measure poverty? And I started to get there a little bit in setting this conversation up. But talk a little bit about, in your way of approaching this work—and the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, the various hats that you’re wearing today—talk a little bit about what are the very different pictures of poverty, and really of our economy, that we end up getting depending on how we measure it. You mentioned before that according to the Poor People’s Campaign, the way that you all think about it, we’re talking about 140 million poor people in the United States, something about one third of our population. But using the Official Poverty Measure, we get a very different picture. So, Shailly, talk a little bit about why, in your opinion, it matters and how we define poverty.
BARNES: Yeah. I mean, it matters for many reasons. Kind of most practically, is, as Dave started to say, it matters because it determines the scale and scope of our response to poverty, how much is allocated to the welfare programs we do have, to healthcare, to public education, to all of the dimensions of life and well-being that we’ve been talking about and that are impacted when you don’t have enough to meet your needs. And so, when we minimize the extent of poverty through this arcane and insufficient measure, when we minimize the extent of what we’re talking about, we don’t design the programs we need, and then we certainly don’t fund them to the extent that they need to be.
So, yeah, if you took the poverty line as it was, we’re talking about 35, 38 million people, which is a lot of people. But a program designed for 35 or 40 million people is a fundamentally different program than designing a program for 140 million people, for more than three times that number. And during the pandemic, we did see that that number, 140 million, went down. Pre-pandemic it was 140 or so million. That hadn’t changed in a few years. And then these pandemic-era programs that put resources directly into people’s hands, that expanded access to healthcare and child care and made sure you could stay in your home and keep your water and utilities on, all of those different programs and support, they reduced that number by tens of millions of people. It went down to like 111, 112 million. That is a big change! And so, we see that when we design programs that do actually meet more people than what the poverty line tells us who we should be thinking about, if we extend that, we have an impact. Now, it’s not enough. When those programs ended, the numbers are on the rise again. But that’s one of the biggest reasons and most practically, when we have the wrong measure, we don’t have the right programs in place.
And then a second reason is how we socialize, or actually don’t socialize the experience of poverty. When we’re talking about 40 percent of the country or a third of the country, that can’t be reduced, or that can’t be kind of narrated as individual failures or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re talking about people in every county of the country, in every geographic area, there are people who are poor or one emergency away from being poor. And then across our lifetimes, most people in this country will experience poverty. This can’t be reduced to racialized or gendered narratives about the poor, even though it is disproportionately experienced by Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people. Sixty percent of Black people, by our numbers, 60 percent of Hispanic people, more than 60 percent, almost 60 percent of Indigenous people, and a third of white people: 66 million people, numerically half of all the poor and low-income people in this nation are white. We’re just talking about massive numbers of people. And it’s not because these tens of millions of people aren’t working or don’t wanna work or don’t have the right values. It’s something about our society and our economy not working for the best for close to half of the country. This is not an individual problem, but it could be masked by an inadequate measure. It’s a structural problem, and that demands a whole different set of solutions that you can’t see under our current measure.
VALLAS: Yeah, that’s beautifully put. And so, just to editorialize that by putting even maybe a finer point on some of what you just wove together, right, there is an argument—and part of why I wanted to have this conversation with all of you and to get back together for the podcast when you guys reached out and said it feels like it’s time to do this again—part of the reason I wanted to have this conversation was really because as I’ve started to think about it, and I think this might be fair to say we all are starting to feel this way, our current form of measuring poverty, that Official Poverty Measure, I think it might be fair to say it’s actively holding back our ability as a collective, as a society, as a policymaking sector, as an advocacy sector, to do more than just tinkering around the edges of the status quo, which is late-stage capitalism and an economy that is not working for huge, huge numbers of people by design, not because people are falling between the cracks or making bad decisions or are broken or failed people. And David, I know you wanna get back in, and then I’m gonna take us to the next place we’re gonna go with this conversation. So, David.
BRADY: Yeah, I think your point about holding back is really, really important in that we feel like we’ve checked the box if the Official Poverty Measure goes down. And one thing that Shawn has written about that really convinced me is that when we created the Supplemental Poverty Measure as an alternative, we still have this kind of box-checking mentality as if that number goes down, all problems are resolved, and we’ve addressed well-being. And Shawn has convinced me that we always agreed the official measure was just too low, that there’s tons of people, like Shailly says, that are above the official line but are really struggling to make ends meet and are suffering lower well-being as a result. Well, the SPM comes along, and it improves the measure in a bunch of ways, but it’s still way too low. And so, we’ve forgotten about the part that the line is just way too low, and there’s tens of millions of people that don’t have sufficient economic resources but aren’t even qualified as supplementary poor. So, I think that’s really important.
VALLAS: Yeah, and that’s why we named that last episode The Poverty Line Is Too Damn Low, right? So, if folks are looking for that other episode, that’s the title. But it’s part of the equation here, not the whole picture, but a huge part of it.
So, taking us now to this next piece of our conversation, Dave, you’ve brought up a few times the word “well-being.” And that’s, I think, exactly where we wanna go next, which is just to say a certain minimum amount of money is essential. It’s a prerequisite for self-care, right? For really basic self-care as a human. And I think it’s fair to say all of us would agree that we’re all deserving of that basic human right of being able to actually care for ourselves and to reach a minimum standard of dignity just by virtue of the fact that we’re all human. And that being said, as we’ve been laying the groundwork for this conversation, huge numbers of people in this country, depending on your count, maybe as many as a third or even half of this country, are people who are not at that level of having that prerequisite amount of funds to just be able to even care for themselves as humans in very basic, minimal ways.
And so, for this next part of the conversation, what I would really love to do is to actually pull on one of the threads, Shailly, that you started to offer of looking at some of what we know and some of the research, but evidence from a variety of different forms. What is it that we know about the mental and the emotional consequences, on the one hand, of poverty, but on the flip side, the mental and the emotional benefits of having that basic level of income? And so, Shailly, you were mentioning before that during the pandemic, we actually had a lot of really fantastic, and in some cases really historic, policymaking in the form of pandemic-era interventions that are actually really good policies, whether or not we’re in a pandemic.
And one really, really fantastic example, which is close to all of our hearts in various ways, is the Child Tax Credit was expanded in a way that really represented America’s first foray into having a guaranteed minimum income for families with kids, something that most of our [laughs], our peer nations have or many of them have in some form or fashion, but which was brand new for the United States to put in place. And it was an Expanded Child Tax Credit that only lasted for just one year. Absolutely heartbreaking to watch that allowed to expire because Republicans didn’t wanna go along with Democrats who wanted to extend it past that one-year experiment. But Shawn, bringing you back in, and then, Shailly, I wanna hear from you on this as well, what did we learn from that Expanded Child Tax Credit, that guaranteed minimum income for families with kids, in that one year that it existed? And how does that fit with other evidence that we have when it comes to the connection between money and having a certain amount of minimal money, that certain floor, that economic floor, and then the emotional and mental and other forms of well-being that we can measure?
FREMSTAD: Just very simply, we learned that it’s really good. You know, it is. And one thing I would say is it’s not, it wasn’t just with that Child Tax Credit, right? It wasn’t just, like, before the pandemic the typical tax credit was a lump sum that you got once a year with filing taxes, if you qualified, and a lot of people were, a large portion of people at the bottom of the income scale were excluded. But the CTC that was an inclusive child benefit was also paid on a monthly basis, for the first time, which I think is also very important ‘cause it was, it wasn’t just saying, here’s more money. It’s also, here’s a reliable source of money each month that you can depend on. You may know everything around you is going to h-e-double toothpicks or whatever [laughs]. I don’t wanna swear here. But you know this is coming in and that you can make, you know, you can spend this money on your child and meet these basic needs. And it’s kind of one little bit of calm oftentimes in this storm. I think this is really essential. We know that it’s having income. It’s having it on a regular basis. It reduces evictions, food insecurity, kind of a host of other things, improves well-being. There’s just no question about it.
The other thing I wanna say about poverty and the pandemic relief programs was it wasn’t just an income thing either. Remember, this was very comprehensive in a unique way where we didn’t just have a, you know, we didn’t just have this child benefit that reduced poverty, measured poverty, by over income poverty by 50 percent. We also said we’re gonna make sure you have healthcare in the way you do in a country with a fairly universal system. So, you’re not gonna get kicked off just because your income goes over some little thing, or you didn’t have a form. We’re gonna have an eviction moratorium, which gets closer. I think we didn’t do enough on many housing things during COVID, but we at least said you have some sort of basic security. We did student loan, hit the pause button on those. Just this whole host of things that I think added up to an impact that we probably don’t really understand comprehensively. But I think it was much more than income. Well, it was an income thing. It was a well-being thing. But it was also, I mean, just to step back a little bit and not be too overpraiseful, it’s just the way things should be in a rich country that can afford to do these things and cares about its people and treats them with equal respect and concern.
VALLAS: Yeah, a phrase, Shawn, that you once used years ago when we were both at the Center for American Progress working in the poverty program there, but a phrase that you used years ago that stuck with me that I often think about is the “sharp elbows of a low-wage labor market that is deeply unforgiving,” the way that things are set up in our normal economy these days, that status quo that we put on pause for the pandemic. And so, what I was thinking about when you were just saying that is, that it’s like almost for just a moment, we pulled in those sharp elbows, right? And people weren’t experiencing that just for a moment.
And Shailly, you actually used some similarly evocative metaphorical phrasing when we were messaging a little bit about how we wanted to approach this conversation in the way that you described that period, that one-year period, of the Expanded Child Tax Credit was you referenced the “breathing room” that it gave to poor and low-income households who just didn’t have to worry as much at all times for those few months when they were receiving that guaranteed minimum income floor. Shailly, pick up where Shawn left off and share whatever you think is helpful in this context from what we learned from the Expanded Child Tax Credit or more broadly, what we know about the connection between a certain minimum level of financial resources and the well-being that we know humans all deserve.
BARNES: Yeah, I think to be able to see what these monthly payments alongside, as Shawn is saying, all these other supports that were in place at the same time, what together that provided to these households who otherwise were scrambling, working multiple jobs, looking for multiple jobs, trying to fill all of the gaps in between, scrambling to cover childcare, and the kind of mill of which bill to pay and which to let go another month, all of these stresses were relieved. They weren’t erased, but they were relieved for a period of time. And when the parents, when parent and caregiver emotional well-being is improved, when they’re able to spend more time with their children and feel as if they’re there together for and with them, the overall well-being, we can’t underestimate the effects of that on other dimensions of well-being.
And more than, you described this is heartbreaking, it was infuriating, in fact, when the Child Tax Credit wasn’t, didn’t, you know, these monthly payments wasn’t renewed past 2021, especially given all of the research that’s showed kind of indisputably the positive benefits of this. And you had to wonder why is it that these impacts on these households just don’t amount to enough to keep this program in place? And I do appreciate also Shawn laying out that not only was it available in full to the people, to the poorest households who didn’t have this before and the amount was increased, and it came out in the form of monthly payments, but it did come alongside all of these other systems. It didn’t count against your other support systems.
And so, I think all of that together is the basis that we need to build from, including that there were also significant gaps, right? Immigrant families in particular were much less likely to receive these payments than they were qualified for and other inequities around banking status. But these are things that we can identify and improve. And so, I don’t know. I mean, if we see that temporarily for those who received this tax credit alongside these other supports, and it worked because of these changes, and there were no work requirements, none of this other kind of pathologizing of insecurity during that time, that is, we can’t let this, we can’t let that experiment just have been a yearlong experiment. We need to take those lessons and carry them forward. Too much is on the line if we can’t do that.
VALLAS: Yeah, and of course, Shailly, you just mentioned the elephant in the room, right, which is work requirements, a debate that is very much playing out yet again on our national stage in the context of the debt ceiling and Republicans in Congress holding effectively the entire global economy hostage to certain demands, such as making time limits in food assistance and other basic needs programs even harsher for people who can’t find steady work or who aren’t engaged in certain approved work activities for a certain minimum amount of time every single month. Shawn, I know you wanted to get back in on this as well.
FREMSTAD: Yeah, actually, it fits very well with a point I wanted to raise. I mean, one of the sort of dire predictions, even during the pandemic, if we expand these benefits, if we let people keep Medicaid, if we let people keep food stamps and waive the work requirements, we’re gonna have this huge problem where people don’t, you know, people are gonna get quote-unquote “dependent” and never go back to work. And same with paying the Child Tax Credit to every, you know, to all children and on a monthly basis, it’s gonna have this huge negative impact on work. And the reality is none of that happened. In fact, we are now, we have seen the strongest kind of, just this extraordinarily strong growth in terms of employment. We have seen, I think, really importantly, huge gains in wages for the lowest paid workers. And really part of what we had is a lot of policies interacting in place that made workers valuable and required ended up basically requiring employers to value low-wage workers and not just think they can offer anything. So, I think it really has busted, or it should bust, a lot of the mythology that has been central both to kind of a lot of conservative ideology around the welfare state, but also, people like Joe Manchin, some of these remaining conservative Democrats who buy into that stuff, I think if they took a look at the facts, it would be a very different situation we’re in.
VALLAS: Yeah. And Shailly, I feel like you used the perfect word earlier in describing that mindset or those types of policies as ones that pathologize poverty, right? That really is what they are.
So, I wanna take us to this next chunk of the conversation, which I would really like to be forward looking and would love to give each of you the space to talk a little bit about not how things currently work or the problems with our current poverty measure, but how should we measure and redefine poverty? And in particular, I would love to give each of you the chance to speak a little bit to what, in your opinion, what redefinition of poverty in America would potentially serve a broader, a more transformative vision of poverty eradication, not just cutting poverty, right, but poverty eradication in the context of economic liberation? That bigger picture view that we’ve really been looking to have run as a throughline throughout this podcast for the past year or so. And Shailly, I’m gonna take that to you first. And again, this connects to where you opened this conversation with, by actually bringing in that 140 million number in terms of how many people the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign actually view as poor in America. How would you—and whichever hats you wanna wear, the Kairos center, the Poor People’s Campaign, your own personal opinion—how would you like to see poverty measured? And that could be how you guys are actually measuring it in your own rival definition.
BARNES: Yeah, how we’ve done it so far is we basically estimated the number of people who we would say are poor by doubling the poverty threshold under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which as David said earlier kind of accounts for public assistance, the cost of basic needs are some of that, and geographic differences. And that brings us up to a threshold of about $55-60,000 for a family of four. That’s still less than what you actually need to make your needs, but it’s closer. And that’s how we get to 140 million. You take the threshold, and you double it and count everyone who falls under twice that threshold. But I think ideally, what would be even better is a measure that is really commensurate with the actual costs of meeting your needs. And we have some agreement that when we talk about basic needs, we’re talking about healthcare, rent, food, clothing, water, utilities, transportation, education, also rest, leisure, right? These are actually the full scope of our human rights and basic needs to achieve a true and full human life. And those are adjusted for family size and composition, all the technical fixes we can make. We account for debt and go back to this notion that you mentioned of Solana and not just cutting poverty, but ending poverty.
And so, we define it. We would define it then by living with anything less than your basic needs becomes our measure, becomes our definition, rather than being willing to accept deprivation on any level of any basic need, just a fundamental intolerance for deprivation. And so, that way we can reframe the conversation around welfare. The history of the Kairos Center is rooted in welfare rights organizing. We can reframe the conversation as they did around the ability for us all to fare well, which is much broader than where we currently have it. And I think going back to this point I made earlier around looking at poverty alongside wealth, if we start to kind of incorporate how the costs of those basic needs have gone up faster, much more than incomes or public benefits, taking that into account, we’re also shifting the burden of poverty and why these costs are rising to something other than individual poor people, individual poor people who can’t afford what they need, right? We’re shifting that responsibility. We’re shifting that over to the social systems and structures that allow for those costs to go up, to the government to provide for those needs. And looking at how things, you know, I don’t know. I think there’s something to that where right now, the burden of all of this falls on poor people to change who they are rather than looking at what the more basic kind of fundamental root causes of poverty are and addressing that.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I love how you wove that all together, Shailly. And just to even say—and this is something I often bring up on this podcast—but to take the concept of poverty measurement and turn it inward and apply it to oneself, right? I don’t think most people listening would say, “Oh yeah, I think I would be really satisfied with someone looking at me and saying, ‘Oh, you’re doing fine because your income is above some arbitrary line, right?’” if you still couldn’t meet your basic needs. Because like a human-centered definition, anyone thinking about themselves as opposed to other people, it’s gonna be much more connected to can I achieve a basic standard of living? Can I meet my basic needs? As opposed to is some number, some line out there above or below the income that I happen to have this year?
And David pick that up there because you and Shawn, and you’re both gonna get to speak next to this point, have both worked extensively not just on poverty measurement over the years but specifically, you’ve both become very staunch advocates for the concept of a relative poverty measure, of moving away from the way that we measure poverty in the United States, which is that arbitrary line, to a system that would actually be a relative poverty measure system. Would you explain what it would mean to switch to a relative poverty measure, how that works, and what you view as its advantages as something of a diagnostic tool, if we’re thinking about ourselves as healers of the collective who are actually seeking to eradicate versus just to modestly shrink poverty?
BRADY: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m a strong advocate for relative measure. And the basic logic is that we should judge poverty relative to the prevailing standards of the society you live in. Shawn has this way of calling it the here and now. Our line should be based on the here and now. So, the way we do relative measures, we just look at the median of income, and then we say you’re poor if you’re far below that median. And we argue that the median gives us a sense of what the prevailing standards of the society are.
But I wanted to expand on that just a little bit and say that when you asked, Rebecca, what’s the best way to measure poverty, how should we measure poverty? It certainly would be a relative measure. But underneath that, I would say, we of course, wanna measure economic resources as comprehensively as possible. We wanna factor in taxes, incorporate tax credits. But also, I think one really interesting direction will be to try to monetize the public healthcare services we have, like Medicaid, and figure out what that means for families’ economic resources. And similarly, we need to understand what private health insurance does for upper-income family economic resources.
But the last thing I’ll say to this, to your question, Rebecca, is it seems to me we could come up with what I’ll call Sen’s rule, Amartya Sen’s rule, in that the best measure of poverty is the one that best predicts well-being. And that we shouldn’t get fixated on any dollar amount. We should always be willing to consider the best measure for predicting well-being. And my argument is the evidence really, really convincingly shows that a relative measure better predicts well-being. It predicts health, it predicts psychological distress, it predicts life satisfaction, it predicts mortality. So, that would be my strongest argument for a relative measure.
VALLAS: And Shawn, I’m gonna bring you in on the same question there. You’ve done a lot of work, much of it with David, on this very question.
FREMSTAD: Mmhmm. Yeah, well, I just wanna agree with pretty much everything David and Shailly said. I mean, Shailly mentioned the 200 percent of the Supplemental Poverty Measure, and that’s also a kind of relative measure. So, I think there’s a lot of commonality there. There’s some, you know, there’s technical differences. But again, it’s trying to say, I think, and in a certain way too, I think this ultimately gets to the idea that we don’t want this kind of sharp divide between the upper middle class and the rest of everybody else, so that they’re living in two distinct worlds, and they have a different, I think somebody said something like a different set of dreams or, you know, which seems really apt here. And to me, it really gets down to having a more egalitarian society and these measures being part of the tool to assess that.
I would just say two other quick things. One is I think we need to be on the watch for conservative, there is an ongoing conservative effort. It’s actually happening right now to develop what’s called a Consumption-based Poverty Measure by the federal government. The federal government is developing this kind of a measurement. And I think a real, and, you know, it’s really just based on if people say they have these things or spend these things, then they’re not poor. And it typically is accompanied by a very low, a much lower, even lower than the Official Poverty Measure threshold, and I think that’s very dangerous. And I really hope that we don’t go down that route.
I think the other thing is it would be great to see the Biden administration, I’m a fan of so many things that they’re doing. They’re doing a lot through executive action to improve things, really pushing. But this is an area where I haven’t seen any pushing. And I think that’s really unfortunate. So, I would hope even if we don’t know precisely what the greatest, best measure is, create a commission, go out and talk to people in working-class and poor communities about what kind of things would help represent their realities. And this is something other countries have done, Canada has done. You know, we should be doing it.
VALLAS: Yeah, I had hoped that in between our last episode talking about poverty measurement, when you made that same call to the Biden administration and this one that we might have something we could share. But no, still some really, really sage, free advice for current policymakers who are looking for some additional good that can be done through executive means.
But we’re gonna run out of time. And so, I wanna close us out by sharing some of the words that Shailly actually shared when we were all three messaging about getting together to have this conversation for the podcast. And I wanna give Shailly, you the opportunity to comment first, and then if we have another extra minute or so, I may do a quick lightning round to give Shawn and Dave an opportunity for a last word too. But Shailly, some of what you shared as we were getting ready for this episode and thinking about how does redefining poverty and how we talk about it, how we measure it, how does that fit into the larger stream of talking about self-care in the macro context? And you wrote that you were reminded of an undocumented, low-wage woman who worked in a food processing center who said at one of your Poor People’s Campaign events in 2021 that she and other poor and low-wage workers don’t have the luxury of leisure, something that Shawn has also brought into this conversation today: that they don’t get paid leave, that they don’t get sick leave, that they can’t miss one day of work, but that there is a world where they, too, can spend time with their families and their children, and not only when they’re sick. And that that world exists, but it’s the world of the rich. And that we’re all, by virtue of our humanity, deserving of that world. Shailly, talk a little bit about what that moment brought forward for you and some of why you brought that into the stream of this conversation.
BARNES: Yes, this was Marcela Ramirez, and she’s an organizer and a worker, as you mentioned, a low-wage worker in a food processing center, and she’s with a group of undocumented and immigrant workers in Pennsylvania. And I think we all, there’s just a deep and piercing truth in Marcela’s insight that the world that we are striving for is here. It is just not accessible to everyone. And I think earlier in the conversation today, we talked about what, how do…. If it’s here and it’s not accessible, then the question is, how do we broaden that access? And there’s a responsibility of government and public actors to move us in that direction, and then there’s responsibility of all the rest of us to move in that direction.
And Marcela, I think, keeps me hopeful and kind of charged with mission and purpose because there are millions of people like her who know that that world is possible, and every day, every day acts, carries out these acts of solidarity and survival, which are real miracles. They’re both miracles in these times and also incredibly ordinary in the lives of the poor, where you’re turning food stamps that are enough for one person into enough for a dozen people. You’re turning boxes of mac and cheese into a community meal. You’re turning your neighbor’s water back on after it’s been shut off. These are just, these are miracles, and they happen all the time. And so, that’s the kind of care that happens on an ad hoc and grassroots level. And I think we just have to elevate that. We have to turn that into, we have to turn those into systemic, our systemic response to these conditions. And therefore, that’s how we’re gonna realize true freedom. And so, that’s, I don’t know, maybe that’s where I can end it. There’s not much more to say after Marcela.
VALLAS: And I can’t think of a better note to end this conversation on, but we are gonna run out of time. So, Shailly, Shawn, Dave, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show. Thank you for pitching the conversation because this was definitely one that was timely to bring back into this stream of conversations we’ve been having. And most of all, thank you to all of you for the work that you do and for the tireless work that you have done that has gotten us to this point, but for all that I know that you will do in the weeks and months and the years ahead, as we all continue to force a conversation about redefining poverty, which hopefully after this conversation has now become a lot clearer to folks is absolutely part and parcel and must be part of the conversation around economic liberation. So, thanks to all of you for taking the time. And I’ll send folks to our show notes to learn a lot more about each of Shailly and Shawn and David’s work, but also to find that last conversation that we had about poverty measurement for lots more on that. [theme music returns]
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