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The Use and Misuse of Income Data and Extreme Poverty in the United States

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  • Bruce D. Meyer
  • Derek Wu
  • Victoria R. Mooers
  • Carla Medalia

Abstract

Recent research suggests that rates of extreme poverty, commonly defined as living on less than $2/person/day, are high and rising in the United States. We re-examine the rate of extreme poverty by linking 2011 data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation and Current Population Survey, the sources of recent extreme poverty estimates, to administrative tax and program data. Of the 3.6 million non-homeless households with survey-reported cash income below $2/person/day, we find that more than 90% are not in extreme poverty once we include in-kind transfers, replace survey reports of earnings and transfer receipt with administrative records, and account for the ownership of substantial assets. More than half of all misclassified households have incomes from the administrative data above the poverty line, and several of the largest misclassified groups appear to be at least middle class based on measures of material well-being. In contrast, the households kept from extreme poverty by in-kind transfers appear to be among the most materially deprived Americans. Nearly 80% of all misclassified households are initially categorized as extreme poor due to errors or omissions in reports of cash income. Of the households remaining in extreme poverty, 90% consist of a single individual. An implication of the low recent extreme poverty rate is that it cannot be substantially higher now due to welfare reform, as many commentators have claimed.

Suggested Citation

  • Bruce D. Meyer & Derek Wu & Victoria R. Mooers & Carla Medalia, 2019. "The Use and Misuse of Income Data and Extreme Poverty in the United States," NBER Working Papers 25907, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:25907
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    Cited by:

    1. Jeff Larrimore & Jake Mortenson & David Splinter, 2020. "Presence and Persistence of Poverty in US Tax Data," NBER Chapters, in: Measuring Distribution and Mobility of Income and Wealth, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Jeehoon Han & Bruce D. Meyer & James X. Sullivan, 2020. "Income and Poverty in the COVID-19 Pandemic," NBER Working Papers 27729, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Gaetano Basso & Giovanni Peri, 2020. "Internal Mobility: The Greater Responsiveness of Foreign-Born to Economic Conditions," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 34(3), pages 77-98, Summer.
    4. Theloudis, Alexandros, 2021. "Consumption inequality across heterogeneous families," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 136(C).
    5. Dean Jolliffe & Juan Margitic & Martin Ravallion, 2019. "Food Stamps and America’s Poorest," NBER Working Papers 26025, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C42 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Econometric and Statistical Methods: Special Topics - - - Survey Methods
    • C81 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Data Collection and Data Estimation Methodology; Computer Programs - - - Methodology for Collecting, Estimating, and Organizing Microeconomic Data; Data Access
    • I32 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Measurement and Analysis of Poverty
    • I38 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Government Programs; Provision and Effects of Welfare Programs

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