Self-sufficiency standard changing how we think about poverty

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 5:29 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - Overlooked and uncounted. That’s how REAL Services describes the people who struggle to make ends meet but also don’t fall below the poverty line.

On Wednesday, REAL Services partnered with Indiana Community Action Association to better understand what poverty looks like in our community in 2023.

Those falling under the poverty line often qualify for federal resources to help them meet their basic needs. However, there are still plenty of people who fail to make ends meet that live above the poverty line.

This conversation aimed to rework the traditional definition of poverty so those right on the edge aren’t being left behind.

For decades, the official poverty measure has been used to qualify people for resources that will help them get by. However, this figure tends to be much lower than the true cost of basic needs.

For example, a family of two making roughly $20,000 a year doesn’t meet poverty qualifications anywhere in the Hoosier state, whether they live in Indianapolis or South Bend.

“I think people would be surprised by the extent to which things like childcare and housing — putting all those pieces together — the extent that it takes to truly be self-sufficient and not require some support as a family,” said Indiana Community Action Association Director Dr. Erin Macey.

While the official poverty measure is a calculation based on estimated food costs for a family to get by on, a self-sufficiency standard considers where you live, your race, gender, and abilities, medical debt, and other societal factors to make ends meet estimates specific to a particular family’s situation.

“We use a tool called the self-sufficiency standard to really look at who struggles in Indiana and really understand what it takes for a family to make ends meet without public or private assistance,” Dr. Macey said.

While federal assistance will still rely on the official poverty measure, introducing the self-sufficiency standard to our community could lead to strategies that fill in the gaps for struggling families that don’t qualify for poverty assistance.

“That’s the reason we invited funders to the conversation to say, ‘We want to take a different view’. We’re not going to say, ‘That’s not our problem, we have to abide by those rules.’ Sometimes you need to rewrite the rules, or develop systems that work outside the rules,” said REAL Services President & CEO Karla Fales.

Some of the people in attendance on Wednesday included South Bend Common Council President Sharon McBride, childcare administrators, and housing professionals.