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Changing Profiles of Poverty: Policy Implications of a Multi-Dimensional Measure for the United States


The very term "poverty" continues to evoke debates on what it means to be poor. Although poverty is commonly described in uni-dimensional or monetary terms, many scholars have argued that poverty is more aptly understood as a constellation of deprivations -- a multi-dimensional concept. Different measures unavoidably generate different results, and the extent of poverty is, thus, dependent on the measure used to quantify the number of poor in a given society. A looming question today is whether the official federal poverty measure, developed in the 1960s, still provides an accurate picture of the poor in America. In order to rectify the long-questioned adequacy and validity of the federal poverty measure, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to address key shortcomings of the official measure. In early 2010, the Obama administration adopted the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) that largely follows the recommendations of the NAS Panel. However, the NAS-based measure is still criticized for taking a "reductionist" approach to understanding a complex, socially constructed, and dynamic concept like poverty. To counter the limitations of income-based measures of poverty, there has been a push to advance the field by employing multi-dimensional poverty measures. Amartya Sen laid the groundwork for a paradigm shift in the way poverty is conceptualized. He defines poverty as the lack of capability to generate or obtain the required resources to meet one's basic needs. Drawing on Sen's ideas, the UNDP introduced the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index in 2010, which complements income poverty by measuring the number of deprivations a poor person faces simultaneously with regard to education, health, and living standard. Using secondary data analysis, this study first examines changes in poverty rates by gender, marital status, and race/ethnicity based on the official measure and the supplemental poverty measure in the period 2005-2010. Next, this study creates a multi-dimensional measure for the U.S. that mimics the UN's Multi-dimensional Poverty Index. This study seeks to contribute to the literature by exploring how such a measure can help us better understand the profile of poverty in America today and what the ensuing policy implications are.

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