Today’s announcement that the poverty rate was stable will lead to renewed calls for using a measure of “relative poverty.” Our current practice establishes the poverty line as a multiple of a minimal food budget. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it provides a gauge relative to the cost of feeding a family. Relative poverty, in contrast, sets the gauge as a percentage of median income. A family with significantly less than the median is considered poor, regardless of whether they can afford basic necessities or not.
Under relative poverty definitions, if the median family drives a three-year-old Taurus, you are poor if you drive a six-year-old Kia. If the median family eats at Olive Garden, you’re poor if you go to Taco Bell. And if the median family has the silver package, you’re poor if you have to get by with basic cable.
Relative poverty is not about people suffering, it’s about envy.