The National Academy of Sciences, in a 500-page tome, has redefined poverty. Since 1963, the definition of poverty has been based on a family with two children and the family’s cash income before taxes and what they spent on food. In 1963, a family earning below $3,100 was “poor.” Now the figure is $14,228. Because of inflation, what a dollar will buy has not changed much in the past three decades, so the 13-member NAS panel proposes “a new measure that will more accurately identify the poor population today.” The new poverty threshold would range between $15,700 and $15,900, “plus a little more” thrown in for other “needs.”

At least three ideas in the report are good ones: counting welfare benefits as income; subtracting taxes from income in calculating the poverty threshold; and taking into account the city or town in which a poor person lives. After all. Food Stamps provide free food, taxes represent money earned but never used, and living in Manhattan costs more than living in Butte, Montana.

But the panel did not stop there. It would also change the threshold in another subtle but significant way. Instead of simply using after-tax income and what a family spends on food to calculate poverty, it recommends setting a threshold relative to the amount of disposable income left after the family pays for “basic needs,” which arc defined as food, shelter, and clothing. Moreover, the panel’s plan would deduct medical expenses, health insurance premiums, expenses related to work, and child support payments when it calculates disposable income.

The proposal may sound reasonable. But the result, says lone panel dissenter John Cogan, is that the number of families considered poor will increase about eight percent faster than it would under the old definition because more Americans will fall under the threshold. However accurate that estimate is, Cogan is right about one thing: “These recommendations are not scientific judgments.” hi a five-page dissent buried in the report’s appendices, he continued: “They are value judgments made by scientists—with a particular point of view. hi essence, the panel has mostly eschewed [science] . . . and instead assumed the role of government policy maker.” Cogan wants to know, for instance, “what scientific basis exists for concluding food, clothing and shelter are basic needs and health care or personal care services are not? What scientific basis exists for concluding that all types of food, clothing and shelter, rather than only a subset, are basic needs?” Cogan wonders whether Air Jordan or Reeboks are “needs.”

Very good questions, since deducting health care, child care, and insurance premiums from a family’s income could pull it beneath the poverty line. Consider two families, Cogan asks, both earning $16,000. By the panel’s new measure of poverty, neither family is poor. Yet if one family decides to spend $3,000 on health insurance, it suddenly becomes “poor” and therefore eligible for a variety of welfare benefits. Oddly, Cogan notes, “after making adjustments to countable income, [the report] concludes that families living near the current poverty line have fewer countable resources than they would have under the current poverty measure.”

Maybe, but pace Mr. Cogan, the lack of valid “science” is not the problem. The problem is “defining poverty” itself and the consequence of decanting one part of the population from the rest of it: i.e., expanding the power of the state, which in this country seeks to undermine the family and create a population of individuals whose needs are met by another “family,” the state bureaucracy.

No wonder, then, that the panel also wants to change the definition of family, which would finish the job of pushing fatherhood and marriage out the front door. Instead of a mother and father, the family will now include “cohabitating couples.” Of course, “cohabitating couples” and their bastards are not families. They are individuals living under the same roof, for neither one of the “cohabitating” couple has a reason to stay in the “family” without a sacred marriage vow enforced by law. But in any event, because so many “couples” this day and age “cohabitate,” the welfare rolls will no doubt expand far beyond what they would be if government recognized only a man and woman married to each other. This new definition of family will implicitly recognize and reward the very behavior that may have led the “cohabitating couple” to poverty’s open arms. “Cohabitating” invariably leads to little things called children, who in turn lead to poverty for those unprepared or unequipped to care for them.

Then again, considering their academic and government credentials, perhaps that’s exactly what the eggheads who published this study want. The new definition of poverty, after all, will add people to the welfare rolls. Whatever Speaker Newt’s “Contract” says, an expanding class of poor people will furnish the state with an excuse to confiscate more money from its subjects, which in turn will require it to further “define” and stratify the population. Once that has been accomplished, the government’s doctors will have just the diagnosis they need to justify concentrating even more power in the bureaucracy and transferring even more wealth from the healthy rich to the sickly poor.

The NAS panel’s work was begun when Democrats still controlled River City, but the timing of its release seems almost perfect: Republicans are talking welfare reform. Of course, the new definition of poverty is likely to be adopted by the phalanx of government agencies that attend to such matters. So once the GOP enacts whatever reforms its braintrust has in mind, it will not be long before we learn that more Americans than ever are poor, thanks to the revised definition. Using the artificially inflated number of poor Americans, the Democrats will no doubt concoct another “crisis.” By that time, if Republicans still control Congress and have dismantled as much of the welfare state as they promised, it will be interesting to see what “federalist” programs they conceive to deal with it.

Republicans, we know, do not really mind big government and the welfare state; they merely do not like Democrats running them. So perhaps while the “experts” are at it, they can contrive a new definition for Republicans and Democrats that would clarify their difference and how they differ from us.