By the Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J.
In their 1986 book-length pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Bishops reminded us of the importance of confronting poverty in these words:
Dealing with poverty is not a luxury to which our nation can attend when it finds the time and resources. Rather, it is a moral imperative of the highest priority.1
But what does it mean to speak of poverty in the United States? Drawing on the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, the bishops explained it this way, “By poverty, we are referring here to the lack of sufficient material resources required for a decent life.”2 Then, in the next sentence, they acknowledge the complexity of the question, “We use the government’s definition of poverty, although we recognize its limits.” And a footnote introduces elements of the national debate about what we call “the poverty line.”
The current poverty line measure was developed in the Social Security Administration in the early 1960s by research analyst Mollie Orshansky. It was based on surveys in the prior decade regarding American families and their food consumption. The poverty level was set at three times a subsistence food budget, based on the experience that families at that time spent one-third of their income on food. The poverty line is still calculated on that basis and adjusted for family size. The 2008 measure is $17,163 dollars for a family of three.