Posted by Sr. Researcher, Emily Tamilin

With the release of 2013 American Community Survey, communities are a buzz with new data on the pervasiveness of poverty in our neighborhoods. Currently, there are approximately 147,896 individuals living at or below the poverty line in Mecklenburg County; that accounts for almost 15% of the populations. Looking at children under age 18 specifically, that figure jumps to 20%.

Poverty is a significant predictor of outcomes and an important measure with which to understand barriers to successful outcomes. However, we often talk around poverty instead of talking about it. That’s because we, as a community, do not share an understanding of how the poverty line, as used by the US Census Bureau, was defined, how it has been updated, or how it actually measures need.  Furthermore, there are far reaching implications associated with growing up and living in poverty that surpass the inaccessibility of basic necessities.

Let’s start with some background about the poverty line:best boys

Since President Johnson’s initiation of the War on Poverty, the federal poverty line has served as the most widely cited indicator of need in the US. It is simply one measure of need designed to determine what is necessary for a family to survive.  It measures pre-tax income, fails to consider major expenses such as child care, and ignores variations in the cost of living from region to region.

The US poverty threshold was established in the 1960s based on the assumption that households spend approximately one-third of their income on food. This estimate, aside from periodic adjustments for inflation, has remained largely unchanged.  Meanwhile, the cost of housing, transportation, health care, and child care have grown at rapid rates. For instance, today the two greatest expenses for families are housing and childcare. Ironically, food only accounts for about one-seventh of a family’s annual expenses.

Because the poverty line is an income-based measure, additional limitations for assessing need exist. For instance, examining current income neglects to measure net worth as it does not consider savings, debt, or access to credit. It also fails to measure household or family resources.

Children and families experience poverty when they are unable to meet the minimum, decent standard of living needed to fully participate in the communities in which they live.  Two different but important components contribute to this experience: material hardship and human/social capital. When we say that families experience material hardship, we are referring to a lack of resources. While we generally agree that food, clothing, and shelter have long been considered basic necessities, we also acknowledge that, in 21st century America, running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, and telephone service are also essential. In fact, they are essential in way that they were not 50 years ago. Furthermore, families need more than just material resources in order to achieve a decent standard of living; they also need human or social capital. This refers to nonmaterial resources that provide families with the opportunity to do more than just get by, they offer the opportunity to get ahead. Examples include: basic life skills, education, and employment experience.  Measure material hardship and human/social capital is extremely difficult.

Over the coming weeks, we will look at Mecklenburg County quick facts, share short videos, discuss the living income standard, and share stories about the children we work with every day. We invite your comments, questions, and ideas.

 (Sources: 2013 ACS, 1-year estimates; National Center for Children in Poverty; Cellini,  S.R., McKernan, S., & Ratcliffe, C. (2008). The dynamics of poverty in the United States: A review of data, methods, and findings. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(3), pp. 577-605.; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2004). Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Washington, DC. Report available here:

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