The Historic Legacy of the Food-Income Poverty Model

1939 Food Stamp

The first food stamp issued in 1939.

Urban planners depend on the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), but few understand the relationship between the OPM and food budgets. In the 1960’s, Mollie Orshansky, a statistician working at the Social Security Administration, was instrumental in coming up with a scientific definition for what she called the “undoubted poor”. To provide scientific justification for defining poverty, Orshansky argued that a nutritious diet was the most basic need families should not go without. Orshansky used the USDA’s economic food plan, which was considered the minimum budget a family could use to purchase an adequate diet, and the 1955 USDA Household Food Consumption Survey to determine how much the average family spent on food. Together, Orshansky defined poverty as any family that had a total income less than three times the economic food plan. This definition rested on two critical assumptions:

The first assumption set the food-income multiplier at three. Since the average household in 1955 spent one out of every three dollars on food, a family should be able to purchase a healthy diet with a third of their income and have enough money left over for the undefined needs. Today’s OPM still uses a multiplier of three to determine the minimum level of consumption, but based on changes in consumer expenditures, the multiplier should have been four in 1960-61, six by 1988, and around seven today.

The second assumption was that the USDA’s economic food plan would allow for an adequate diet. The economic food plan, today referred to as the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), was not designed for long-term use, but today millions of households are expected to make healthy adequate meals from an unforgiving budget year after year. In addition, the TFP, which is also used to determine food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), assumes a household produces no food waste and has an expert food preparer, with excellent menu planning and food shopping skills. The TFP’s historic foundations stressed the need for home food production, health education, and local networks to ensure the affordability of healthy food. The assumptions behind the definition of poverty provide no margin of error and demand that all meals be made from scratch.

Orshansky was the first critic of her measure of poverty and saw the food-income relationship as an “interim guide.” However, Orshansky’s standards for counting the “undoubted poor” have determined six decades of policy. In 1965 the poverty level for a family of four was $60 a week ($1,963 a month in 2014 dollars).The OPM in 2014 was $1,988 a month ($23,850 a year) for a family of four. In 2014 the monthly TFP budget for a family of four was $650, or one third of $1,988.

Since the 1960’s the food system and consumer expenditures have experienced tremendous changes. Changes such as food retail consolidation and the changing role of women in the workforce make the TFP and the food-income multiplier severely out of date. Astonishingly, the OPM can be determined by simply multiplying a 60-year-old food budget by three and adjusting for inflation.

A more appropriate food budget for a family of four would be closer to $1,000 a month and the food-income multiplier should be closer to seven. That means that any family of four earning less than $84,000 a year is probably making difficult choices been purchasing food for a healthy diet and providing for all other needs (housing, education, transportation, health care etc.). For the more than 18 million households living below the poverty level there is clearly no margin for error. In this context, government programs set up an impressive facade that does not address the true costs of poverty and reinforces an impossible food budget that very few families could make work.

What can urban planners do? Here are some recommendations:
1. Become familiar with the USDA Food Budgets
2. Find out which stores in your community provide Market Basket Prices below the Thrifty Food Plan – see an example from Portland, OR – Grocery Cart PDX
3. With an initial focus on the stores with the best Market Basket Prices, find out what the current public transportation options are and conduct a walkability audit. See if there are any immediate ways to improve mobility between people living in poverty and food retailers.
4. Work with local food retailers and local food producers to make affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods readily available.

About the Author. Nathanael P. Rosenheim, Ph.D. is Assistant Research Scientist in the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.