ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Trump administration is considering changing the way the government defines poverty. That could mean lower benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid for millions of low-income Americans. Anti-poverty groups are already up in arms over this. NPR's Pam Fessler is covering the issue and is here with us in the studio. Hi, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Why is the administration considering these changes?
FESSLER: Well, the way the government measures poverty has always been very controversial, and there are a lot of people who think that the current method isn't very good at describing what low-income families are actually going through. And part of this measure is what's called the poverty line. If you fall below it, you're considered poor. Right now it's about $26,000 for a family of four. But each year the line is adjusted for inflation, and what the Trump administration is considering is whether to use a different inflation measure to make that adjustment, one it says would be better but which is also lower than the current rate that we use.
SHAPIRO: If something like this did move forward, how would that change access to government benefits?
FESSLER: Well, the poverty line would still go up but probably not as quickly as it goes up under the current system. And what that means is over time, fewer people would be considered poor. And it also means fewer people would qualify for government benefits that are based on the poverty line such as food stamps, which are also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - Medicaid, energy assistance, Head Start. There's a whole bunch of programs that low-income families rely on. The change would be very gradual over time, but the impact could be substantial eventually. It could affect millions of people who would either see their benefits cut or eliminated.
SHAPIRO: What's the justification? What do supporters say is the reason for doing this?
FESSLER: Well, the administration is questioning whether the current measure is really that accurate. So it's considering using something instead called the Chained Consumer Price Index, and the argument they use for wanting to use the - potentially wanting to use the Chained CPI is that it's a better way to show actual expenses that families face. That's because it assumes that as prices go up, people won't keep buying the same things, but they'll substitute cheaper things. So if the price of steak goes up, they'll buy chopped meat instead just to keep their expenses down.
And a lot of economists agree that this is the way to go. In fact, both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration tried to do this for some federal programs. But in both cases, their proposals never went anywhere because the opposition was so strong from those who stood to lose their benefits. And in Obama's case, he wanted to use it for calculating the cost of living increase for Social Security benefits. So as you can imagine, that did not go over well.
SHAPIRO: And this is still in the proposal stage. It's not an official policy. Any sense of what will happen with the idea?
FESSLER: Right. They've just - they've posted a notice in the Federal Register. They're looking for public comment. But right now anti-poverty groups are very opposed to any change in the poverty rate. It comes at a time they're already upset over a bunch of other proposals that the Trump administration has made to cut back on safety net programs or to make it more difficult for people to qualify, and they see this as part of a much bigger fight. So I think those comments - a lot of them are going to be very much against this proposal.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Pam Fessler. Thanks, Pam.
FESSLER: Thanks, Ari.
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