States don't really know how many of their residents are poor. The
current federal poverty measure uses a forty-year old, widely
criticized methodology. It neither accounts for many of the resources
poor families receive from the government, such as Food Stamps and the
EITC, nor does it, conversely, factor in many additional expenses the
poor face that are not accounted for in the federal measure, such as
transportation costs, child care and local costs of living.
It's now ten years since the 1996 welfare law promised to end "welfare
as we know it." That goal may have been accomplished, but the results
have been decidedly mixed, both for poor families and for state
lawmakers coping with changing federal mandates.