The Poor Is Us

Professor Mark Rank seeks to disabuse us of a number of “myths and stereotypes about poverty” in America. He hopes, as he earlier explained, to build broader support for “programs that lift people in need,” largely by showing us how we could be among them.

Poverty is not something that affects relatively few people, he says, citing his own research. Nearly 40% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will live for at least a year below the official poverty line — and 54% either in poverty, so defined, or near poverty, i.e., below 150% of the line.

If we add “related conditions” like receipt of safety net benefits and unemployment, the number grows to four in five, Rank says. So for most of us, “the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.”

As I earlier remarked, I don’t view unemployment per se as a poverty-related condition. The CEO of BlackBerry just became jobless, but he’s hardly going to qualify for food stamps.

Rank’s basic point still stands: “Poverty is a mainstream event.”

Yet high as the official poverty count is — 46.5 million people — it’s nowhere near a majority of the population. That’s because the average time people spend in poverty is relatively short, Rank says — a year or two, though perhaps followed by another spate sometime later.

Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic gives us a preview of additional supporting figures in a forthcoming book Rank has co-authored.

Within the 25-60 age range, 11.6% of Americans will have spent at least 5 years in poverty, assuming figures from 1968-2009 are predictive. But the poverty years are consecutive for only 6.1%. The “chronic poverty” rate drops to 1.7% for 10 or more years in a row.

The gap between the overall rate and the chronic rates indicates the tenuous financial circumstances of a great many people — by one measure, about 44% of all U.S. households. This is virtually the same as the percent that Rank and co-authors found had benefited from a means-tested safety net program by age 60.

As Rank says, figures like these undermine the “standard image of the poor … [as] an entrenched underclass,” plus some other misconceptions, e.g., that most poor people live in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, that they’re mostly non-white.

Once we accept the facts, it becomes more difficult to sustain the view that people are poor because they lack motivation, don’t work hard enough and/or make bad decisions — or at least, it should.

Research, Rank says, “has consistently found that the behaviors and attitudes of those in poverty mirror those of mainstream America” — presumably because poverty itself is a mainstream experience.

He’s surely right that what he calls “solutions to poverty” won’t become realities until we understand that the poor aren’t “other,” but rather collateral damage of “failings at economic and political levels.”

The solutions he names are basic enough — jobs that pay a decent wage, access to a good education, support for high-quality health care and child care.

They won’t, I think, solve poverty, if that’s an appropriate term for what’s ultimately the function of numerous policy choices.

We do, after all, have people with the advantages Rank names who nevertheless live close enough to the edge to fall into poverty — perhaps even stay there if, for example, they become too disabled to work. And some disadvantages call for other remedies.

But if we truly viewed poverty as “an issue of us,” we’d surely, at the very least, provide a strong safety net and programs that would keep so many people from needing it.

And we surely wouldn’t tolerate rigid time limits, unreasonable work requirements and demeaning entry-level procedures like drug tests, fingerprinting and the like — things that, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, have the psychological impact of “turning poverty itself into a crime.”

All this, however, assumes that we, the majority, perceive a common interest in minimizing poverty and ending the related hardships — and that we have the clout to make these happen. Rank’s interest is obviously to help create the common interest, in faith that we’ll then collectively have the clout.

One might even say he’s aiming to persuade us that anti-poverty policies are in our personal self-interest because, like as not, we or someone close to us will be poor (or nearly so) some day.

My own experience suggests that support for anti-poverty policies doesn’t hinge on self-interest, so narrowly defined. And people who feel economically insecure may react by defining themselves against a more vulnerable “other.”

I don’t want to detract from what Rank has done, however. As Weissman says, his “numbers undercut … the idea that most of the poor, as a broad group, are different from you and me (aside from the bit about having less money).”

As obvious as this seems, it doesn’t seem to be the view that’s driving the Republican agenda at the national level — or in red states like Kansas, where the governor has decided that poor people will get their act together if they’re hurting enough.

4 Responses to The Poor Is Us

  1. Cynthia Lamy says:

    There are many valid and reasonable arguments to be made for stronger poverty-fighting policies; also among them is that when we successfully solve the problems of the poor, we return benefits to all of society, substantially exceeding costs.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thank you for this comment, Cynthia, and for introducing me, via your e-mail address, to Robin Hood.

  3. Cynthia Lamy says:

    I’m very glad to find you and your blog Kathryn! There is much work to do around the issues of poverty in our country, and so many aspects to consider.

  4. […] temporary, though sometimes recurrent one. These findings are generally similar to research I wrote about earlier, but based on more current […]

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