The only change the government makes to Orshansky's formula is to update it annually for inflation. But so much else has changed since then – especially how Americans spend their money. Today, 13 percent of household income is spent on food, far less than the 33 percent in Orshansky's formula. Meanwhile, nearly 35 percent goes to housing, and 17 percent goes to transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those costs are ignored by Orshansky's formula – which means that when the government decides which families make too little money to survive on their own, it's ignoring the things that eat up the majority of the American family's budget.
So last year, the government experimented with a new number that economists hope might give a more realistic picture of poverty (even though it doesn't change how assistance programs determine whom to help). Called the SPM – "supplemental poverty measure" – it counts both disposable income and expenses differently than the official measurement. It includes the buying power that state assistance adds to poor families' budgets: If they have food stamps, they aren't spending their cash on food, so they use it for other things. It also subtracts buying power for other necessary costs that the Orshansky formula ignores, like housing and transportation.
Experts on both sides of the poverty debate agree that the formula isn't perfect, but it is a start for getting a more accurate handle on who has enough to live. And with that experimental formula, the poverty numbers go up, but not all that much – from 46.2 million to 49.1 million people, or from 15.2 percent of the population to 16 percent, according to last year's data. (The second SPM will be released in November.)
So, is Linda Criswell poor? The government says no, because she makes "too much" money. Yet if she needs to go to the mall or the grocery store, she hitches rides with her 35-year-old daughter, to save gas. When her brother gives her a gift card to Big Lots, a discount store, for her birthday, she buys towels and toilet paper.
While other Americans watch the stock market, she watches the grain prices. Grain feeds livestock, and Criswell stretches meat across multiple meals. She's worried. "Grain is going up," she says. "I don't know how much longer I will be able to afford my roast chicken."