How we think about need or deprivation-how we judge its severity, its causes and effects, and the progress we have made (or not made) over time in reducing it-has much to do with how we define and then measure it. And, we measure it poorly. The insufficiencies of official data on American poverty are reasonably well known, yet they continue, nonetheless, to be the principal means by which we gauge need in the United States. After a review of such official measures, this article discusses alternative means of evaluating need in the United States, highlighting the benefits of examining poverty across the life-course, and attending to inequality and other indicators of a relative poverty; it then discusses the advantages of turning toward human rights- and human development-based frameworks for better defining and quantifying deprivation. It concludes with a brief review of the political obstacles to such policy reform.

Publication Date


Journal Title

The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Western Michigan University

Document Type



This is an article published by Western Michigan University in The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare in 2009, available online: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol36/iss1/6