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August 18, 2019

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Poverty is about to get a lot worse in this country

I am a mother. I am an advocate for women. I am a woman of faith concerned about poverty in this country.

In this moment, I am rallying with poor people in claiming their economic and human rights. It has never been easy to be poor in the United States, but things are about to get a lot worse.

The Office of Management and Budget is considering changing the way inflation is measured and the change will affect the way the poverty rate is calculated. With a proposal to move to either the Chained Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers or the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, the change will have an adverse and far-reaching impact on women and children. That is because inflation would be measured more slowly over time, meaning the cost of goods and services would rise while support for families to meet those costs would stay at the same rate over a longer length of time.

This proposed change would be disastrous for women who are heads of households. It would also harm families working jobs that pay below a living wage.

Since many beneficiaries of nutrition assistance programs and health insurance programs are women — many with children — women would bear the brunt of hardship for policy proposals that they had no say in creating.

Yet, over time, millions of women could become ineligible for critical programs — CHIP, SNAP, Medicaid, Head Start, subsidies for marketplace health plans, prescription drug subsidies, school nutrition programs, legal services and more — for themselves and their families.

As an executive at the United Methodist Women — an organization with a 150-year history of serving women and children — I am concerned about women’s ability to thrive and care for their families given this change. Women already earn less than men.

In April, reporters Sonam Sheth, Shayanne Gal and Andy Kiersz wrote in an article for Business Insider, noting that “the average gender pay gap in the United States is around 19.3%, meaning that a woman working a full-time, year-round job earns 80.7% as much as her male counterpart earns. That gap can be larger or smaller, depending on the state someone lives in.”

Additionally, the Coalition for Human Needs notes that both alternative inflation indexes “assume that consumers substitute cheaper items for comparable items whose prices have risen.” However, “the substitutions assumed in the Chained CPI or PCEPI do not reflect the experience of low-income consumers. Low-income people do not have the option to reduce their costs in the same way other consumers do, because they are already forced to select only the cheapest items.”

Sadly, the Office of Management and Budget appears to have proposed these changes without conducting in-depth research and analysis on the impacts of the changes on low-income women and their families. Essentially, people of means and resources are proposing major policy changes without seeking input from people who would be affected and the groups that work on their behalf.

It bears noting that the poverty line is well below a living wage, or the wage that allows families to meet their basic needs for economic stability.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, an adult with two children living in Ohio would need to earn $10 per hour to reach the poverty wage, but would need $27 per hour to reach a living wage for the household. Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.30 does not even reach the poverty line for that household.

Americans on average report that it would take at least $55,000 in annual income to be considered out of poverty. That is more than twice the poverty threshold. To lower the threshold further would devastate many groups — women, children, people in poverty, etc.

United Methodist Women launched a “Living Wage for All” campaign because we understand that some families cannot meet their basic needs with dignity. Those already struggling to make ends meet must not be shoved further into the deep end of the pool.

As an organization with more than 100 National Mission Institutions serving local communities across the country, we know firsthand how damaging the changes in inflation measures would be. Our center serve communities living in poverty, and they are already stretched thin.

The Office of Management and Budget must move slowly, conduct research and solicit input on potential impacts from the people their proposed changes would affect. It must allow for an adequate comment period. 

For the rest of us, we have no choice but to continue organizing on the ground and in our local communities. We must let our senators and representatives know the devastating effects of this pending accounting change and urge them to file a comment with the Office of Management and Budget.

One need not be poor to appreciate that in a nation with so much, it is unjust to give so little to people in need.

Carol Barton is the United Methodist Women executive for community action. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.