To tally seniors in poverty, go beyond income

Because they focus solely on income, official US poverty statistics may be missing many older Americans living in deprivation.

More older Americans live in deprivation than official US statistics suggest, according to research in a new book.

In her research, Shatakshee Dhongde, associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that 12.27 percent of senior citizens were deprived in two or more crucial areas, including multiple disabilities, low income, a lack of education, and severe housing burden.

“The main idea is that you change the lens and look at overlapping deprivations.”

Dhongde says the research illustrates a shortcoming in the official measure of poverty in the United States, which focuses solely on income.

The federal government reported that 9.5 percent of older Americans were living in poverty in 2013. That’s below the 12.3 percent rate found in Dhondge’s new multidimensional poverty index.

According to Dhongde’s research, nearly 4 in 10 older US residents reported being deprived in at least one of the four categories.

Further, many of those living with multiple deprivations were not income poor. For instance, 3.6 percent of seniors experienced both multiple disabilities and severe housing burden, but would not appear in official poverty statistics because their income was above the poverty line threshold.

Race plays a role, as well. Dhongde found that white senior citizens are less likely to be deprived, while Asian, African-American, and Hispanic seniors are more likely to be deprived. In fact, Dhongde found that 30 percent of Hispanic seniors report being deprived in two or more dimensions.

Changing the lens

The study draws on the 2013 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which includes detailed data on economic, housing, educational, and healthcare circumstances of people living in the United States.

Thinking of deprivation in a multidimensional manner, the focus on Dhongde’s work, is a way of looking beyond income while measuring poverty.

“The main idea is that you change the lens and look at overlapping deprivations,” she says. “So I’m not separately looking at what percent of the elderly population was deprived in X and what percent was deprived in Y and so on. Instead, I choose one individual and then analyze how many deprivations he or she is facing simultaneously.”

By examining multiple areas that can affect a person’s quality of life, Dhongde says the multidimensional poverty index can provide better insight into the population’s broader economic condition and can also give policymakers tools to gauge where best to focus limited resources.

The research follows up on a 2017 paper that Dhongde coauthored with Robert Havemen of the Institute of Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In that paper, the researchers showed that during the “Great Recession” which gripped the United States economy from 2008 to 2013, nearly 15 percent of working-age US residents were deprived in at least two of the measures.

Most of those in that study who were multi-dimensionally deprived were low-income earners whose incomes exceeded the poverty line.

That paper was the first in the United States to take a comprehensive look at multidimensional poverty at a national level, but similar techniques are taking hold internationally.

The United Nations has used a similar approach in measuring poverty since 2010. The European Union has also adopted a multidimensional approach. The United States government, however, still assesses poverty largely using income data alone.

Improving lives

Dhongde says that her latest research suggests avenues for policymakers to approach quality-of-life issues and health care costs among the nation’s growing elderly population.

For instance, the research shows that people with little education are more likely to have health issues—suggesting that policy makers address literacy as a way to help people make better health choices—and hold down the spiraling cost of health care.

Dhongde is now working to extend the research model to other fields that could benefit from such analysis.

She is currently working with Laurie Garrow, professor of transportation systems engineering in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who is interested in developing a transportation deprivation index to help guide transit decisions—particularly in rural areas.

“As transportation engineers, we have regulatory requirements to ensure we are designing public transportation systems in ways that are fair and equitable for all individuals,” Garrow says.

“By better understanding how transit dependency characteristics, such as income, employment, disabilities, etc., are related and how these characteristics are spatially distributed, we can design public transit services to better meet individuals’ needs.”

Dhongde says such a tool might use data sets to produce a comprehensive evaluation of transportation factors such as access to private cars, availability of mass transit, and even how often public transportation is available, and how far people have to travel to get groceries or go to school.

The new research appears in the book, Measuring Multidimensional Poverty and Deprivation: Incidence and Determinants in Developed Countries (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).

Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

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