When Weldon Cooper Center researcher Dustin Cable (Engr ’09, Batten ’10) began designing a new poverty measure for Virginia—aimed at giving policymakers and others a more accurate view of poverty throughout the state—he and his team of researchers were surprised how inaccurate the previous gauge had been.

In northern Virginia, for instance, largely considered the most affluent section of the state, Cable’s research found that the poverty rate is 66 percent higher than what the old measure previously found. On the other hand, the poverty rate in southwest Virginia is nearly 24 percent lower.

“Going into this project we realized we would see significant differences based on differences in cost of living,” Cable says. “What surprised us was the magnitude of the differences.”

The official poverty measure is based solely on food costs for low-income families from the 1960s, Cable says. It also uses the same income thresholds for different areas of the state. For example, a family in Arlington has the same poverty threshold as a similar family in southwest Virginia, where costs of living are dramatically different.

“It’s a one-size-fits-all statistic that doesn’t make sense,” Cable says.

The center’s new measure incorporates regional cost-of-living differences and accounts for families’ taxes, medical expenses and how government programs such as food stamps affect family resources.

While the food costs-based measure continues to be the standard for how the federal government allocates funding for various anti-poverty programs, Cable is hopeful that the center’s new measure will add to a growing effort by states to have that model updated.

“How people are living and how they spend money is different now, but the official poverty measure hasn’t kept up,” Cable says. “We see dramatic decreases in poverty rates when we see greater participation in government programs. Unlike the previous measures, this new method can show the effects of policy change on poverty rates. It gives us a better idea of the true population in economic distress in Virginia.”