Economist Philip Jefferson Decries Silence on Poverty Alleviation in Presidential Debate

by Celina De León
Philip Jefferson outside of Kohlberg
Centennial Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson

In the aftermath of President Obama and Governor Romney's second presidential debate before the American public, Centennial Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson remains concerned that America's efforts to combat poverty will slip further into the background.

"It would be great if our public discourse could move from simply citing statistics about the number of people in poverty to a serious discussion about the problem of poverty," says Jefferson, an expert on macroeconomics and econometrics and a former research economist at the Federal Reserve Board. "Presidential debates and campaigns focus on programs and policies aimed at the middle class because this is what most households in the U.S. consider themselves to be. A good society, however, also cares for and addresses the needs of those that have not achieved that status. Central to this is the advancement of policies that will help the poor transition out of poverty."

As editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Poverty released this month, Jefferson spent four years collaborating with leading economists and scholars across the country to create a resource on poverty that would stimulate further research on the subject. The 864-page volume examines poverty from multiple perspectives. Jefferson's introduction and overview provides an analysis and summary of the issues for those who want a quick primer on the latest developments in poverty research. The book's 43 contributors use unconventional variables such as consumption patterns, housing vouchers, obesity rates, and environmental indicators to reveal new insights on poverty and proposals for economic and social policy reform. Jefferson sees the book as a resource for liberal arts students and graduate students in public policy, economics, and sociology.

"Economists tend to ask particular questions about positive outcomes - 'what is' rather than ones about normative outcomes - 'what should be,'" says Jefferson. "Living in a democracy often means that it is not easy to do what is analytically and conceptually the right thing."

Among the book's contributors is Kunhee Kim '11, now a University of Pennsylvania Wharton School graduate student studying health care economics. As an honors economics major, Kim took a course on econometrics with Jefferson her junior year. She began working with Jefferson on the book her last summer at the College through a Sam Hayes Research Grant. She continued working with him during her senior year, co-authoring with Jefferson Chapter 16 of the book, "Macroeconomic Fluctuations and Poverty," which explores the relationship between economy-wide variables such as inflation and unemployment and the national poverty rate.

The book concludes with a chapter by Jefferson titled, "A New Statistic: The U.S. Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure."

"The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is a good example of cooperation between the government and the academic community. Working together, flaws in the official poverty measure were identified. In 2010, this led to the development of the SPM, an improved measure of poverty for the U.S. which among other things, accounts for in-kind benefits, taxes, credits, and expenses in its calculation of resources available to spend on food, clothing, shelter, and utilities," says Jefferson. "Unfortunately, due to budget constraints at the Census Bureau, it is not clear whether this statistic will be able to be produced in the future. It is surprising that relaxing these budgetary constraints for the purposes of advancing our understanding of poverty is not a bi-partisan objective."

Jefferson is a past president of the National Economic Association and is currently a director of the Eastern Economic Association. He has held visiting appointments at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve System. Jefferson's research has appeared in several journals and has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.