Who is poor in America? This is not an easy question to answer, and the Obama administration would make it harder. It's hard because there's no conclusive definition of poverty. Low income matters, though how low is unclear. Poverty is also a mind-set that fosters self-defeating behavior — bad work habits, family breakdown, out-of-wedlock births and addictions. Finally, poverty results from lousy luck: accidents, job losses, disability.
Despite poverty's messiness, we've tended to measure progress against it by a single statistic, the federal poverty line. It was originally designed in the early 1960s by Mollie Orshansky, an analyst at the Social Security Administration, and became part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. She took the Agriculture Department's estimated cost for a bare-bones — but adequate — diet and multiplied it by three. That figure is adjusted annually for inflation. In 2008, the poverty threshold was $21,834 for a four-member family with two children under 18.