When there is an emergency, it is important that we respond in a timely and appropriate manner. If you are having dinner with someone, and they begin to choke and gasp for air, it is time for the Heimlich maneuver or asking “is there a doctor in the house?!” If one pulls out a cell phone at all, it should be to dial 9-1-1, not to take a photo of your friend’s blue face to post on social media.

The United States has long faced an emergency related to our deeply flawed Federal Poverty Level (FPL). It is out-dated and seriously underestimates the count of the number of people who do not have secure access to basic human needs like food and shelter. Reliance on this number creates “cliff effect” impacts on families, by depriving them of much needed assistance from safety net programs long before incomes reach a level that allows access to daily necessities.

The FPL formula was created in the early 1960’s. At that time it was assumed that families in poverty spent about a third of their income on food, so the poverty line was set by computing the cost of a “thrifty food plan” for a family of various sizes and multiplying by three. This formula also assumed that families have one wage earner and a stay-at-home parent. Commuting, child care, and many other modern realities were not accounted for in the model. Today, food generally accounts for about one-sixth of the monthly budget for families in poverty.

We have needed a courageous administration to address the harm being done by the inaccurate FPL. But like the person snapping a selfie while a friend is choking, the Trump Administration is choosing the wrong response.

On May 6, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a notice requesting comments on changing the methodology for updating the federal poverty line for inflation. It suggests using an alternative, lower measure of inflation than the traditional Consumer Price Index (known as the CPI-U) — either the “chained” CPI or the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index. This would result in lower poverty thresholds, with the gap between the current and proposed measure increasing each year.

To put it more directly – the income level to be considered for safety net programs would be lowered year after year relative to inflation, meaning less and less people would qualify for those programs. This change has dire impacts on those most in need of support. According to our national partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Coalition on Human Need, the policy’s impact would be small at first but would grow. By the tenth year, millions of people would lose eligibility for, or receive less help from, health and nutrition programs:

  • Hundreds of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities would lose or receive less help from Medicare’s Part D Low-Income Subsidy, meaning they would pay higher premiums for drug coverage and pay more out of pocket for prescription drugs.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children and adults would lose comprehensive coverage through Medicaid or CHIP.
  • Significant numbers of low-income households, primarily in working families, would lose eligibility for federal nutrition assistance programs including SNAP, WIC, and free school meals.

OMB is seeking comments on the possible change. Comments are due June 21 and can be submitted here. Comments opposing the change are important. Comments – along with statements, analyses, editorials, guest columns, and social media efforts – help draw attention to the issue. The comments themselves also create a record that agencies generally have to show they’ve appropriately considered before taking action to implement the policy change; otherwise, the courts may judge their actions “arbitrary and capricious.” Thoughtful, reality-based comments from a range of voices and perspectives are the priority, rather than a huge volume of comments.

Please join us in submitting a comment by June 21.

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