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  • Dan Connors

Blaming the poor- why do we get poverty all wrong?

Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty

“History is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.” Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

“If you're in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Much has been written about poverty throughout history. And many things have been tried to alleviate the poverty in the world, but it stubbornly keeps picking off the weak and vulnerable, condemning them to shorter lives of desperation and shame. It could be argued that poverty is more prevalent today than ever before, even in a time of unbelievable wealth. Abject poverty may be slightly better, but many more people live in the danger zone, where they are one medical bill, layoff, or divorce away from disaster. Why do we keep blaming the poor for poverty instead of looking at structural problems with the economy? Why does the stigma that comes with poverty make the poor become unwelcome and invisible?

Poorly Understood is the latest attempt to look at the research around poverty in the United States, and the three authors from the world of academia have plenty of data to back themselves up. Mark Robert Rank, the lead author, is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the nation's leading experts on poverty, inequality, and social justice. Rank has written seven books, all on the topic of poverty and inequality, and this one tries to debunk many of the myths that surround poverty and the poor.

Probably the biggest myth the book debunks is that poverty will never affect "normal" Americans. The actual data shows that by the age of 75, at least 58% of us will spend at least one year in poverty, and 76% will fall to 1.5 times the poverty level. 65% of Americans will at one time or another live in a household that gets some kind of government transfer payments- unemployment, food stamps, EITC, and more. For those who think poverty is not a pressing problem, the authors have come up with a Poverty Risk Calculator that will tell you approximately how likely you are to fall into poverty at any moment. Being a white male, my risk was only 15%, but you can find yours here.

For most of us, poverty spells are temporary and short, but economic insecurity is widespread and the dangers of dropping into poverty with an unexpected setback are very real. According to the book nearly half of the falls into poverty end in a year, but for those who are stuck in long-term poverty, the deck is stacked against them.

The current system, as inefficient and unfair as it is, obviously works for those at the top of it. They are able to keep it going and justify their outsized wealth with the myths that are covered in this book. Poverty is a stigma, so people don't like to think about it. The poor are bad people, so no one wants to associate with them. Everybody wants to be in the 1%, but 99% of us will never make it, and over half of us will live lives of insecurity and uncertainty. The authors go to great lengths to disprove the myths of "deserved" poverty and make the reader think about better ways to distribute wealth.

Some popular myths:

1- The poor tend to live in inner-city, crime-ridden neighborhoods. In reality, poverty is increasingly decentralized and found in both suburbs and rural areas. Only 12% of the poor live in the stereotypical distressed inner city neighborhoods.

2- Poverty is a problem for people of color. Actually, white Americans make up 66% of all people in poverty. The rates for people of color are higher, but since there are so many more white Americans, their raw number of people in poverty is the highest.

3- More education can help solve poverty. This one opened my eyes. Rates of both high school and college graduation have increased significantly since 1980, but the poverty rate has barely changed. The sad truth is that there just aren't enough good-paying jobs with benefits to lift people out of poverty, no matter how educated they get. Education only increases the level of competition.

4- People are poor because they make bad decisions. This is false because everybody makes mistakes. The difference is that mistakes made by the wealthy rarely hurt them, while those made by poor people can be catastrophic and life-changing. Everything at the bottom of the economic ladder gets harder, and there's much less room for error, which takes a big cognitive toll on poor people. The added stresses of poverty (poor health, lack of transportation, food insecurity, crime, and lack of stable marriages) make good decisions less likely, not to mention the toll stress takes on health.

5- Welfare fraud is common. Data shows that most mistakes in government benefits are due to unintentional errors. Actual fraud of the welfare system is much less common than people think.

6- The poor are all lazier than the rest of us. The majority of poor people are either children, the elderly, and the disabled, none of whom should be expected to fully support themselves. Those who do work often work in menial jobs such as janitors, health aids, and fast food, where the work is both physical and hazardous. We like to think that life is fair and hard work pays off, but we all know people who have gotten ahead through connections and politics, not merit or hard work.

7- The poor in America are better off than the poor of other countries because the US is so rich. The USA spends much less of its GDP on its welfare state than most OECD (developed) countries. Our faulty health care system falls way behind most other countries in both affordability and accessibility. Single mothers fare much worse here than in other countries. The average poverty rate in most OECD countries is 10.7%, but in the US it is 17%. (Sweden has a poverty rate of only 5.3%, mostly due to generous government benefits.)

8- America is the land of opportunity where anybody can rise from poverty to wealth. This may have once been true, but the data shows that economic mobility in the US is mostly determined by the wealth levels of parents.

All of these myths survive because of the powerful narratives that keep our system in place. How to deal with poverty is ultimately a political choice, and the US political system is tilted strongly towards the wealthy. Politicians rely on campaign contributions to get elected, and they do the bidding of the people who contribute to them once in office. The poor are so disenfranchised that they have the lowest voting participation rates, which only exacerbates the problem. The balance of power is held by those in the middle of the economic ladder, and they've been trained to fear and look down upon the poor and poverty. In the US especially, race plays a central role in providing a dividing line of those who deserve wealth and those who don't.

The authors of this book point out that extremes in poverty can have terrible costs, especially among children. Children who are food insecure, moved frequently, and abused by stressed-out parents start out life with many strikes against them and too many of them fall into habits that guarantee they will never live productive lives once adults. The authors estimate that childhood poverty alone costs the US one Trillion dollars per year in reduced earnings, increased crime, healthcare costs, and prison expenses. They estimate that as little as $77 Billion in government spending could reduce childhood poverty by over 60%, which would be an investment that pays continuing dividends.

Lyndon Johnson instituted a war on poverty in the 1960's that was partially successful. Poverty rates dropped in half in only 14 years. Since the 1980's however, America has gone the opposite direction, and poverty has bounced back, along with the harder to define economic insecurity, a category that encompasses millions of people who are just one piece of bad news away from homelessness or bankruptcy. In 2021, in response to the Covid epidemic, congress passed a landmark piece of legislation that temporarily saved millions from falling into poverty, but it's unlikely that those benefits will last.

The authors recommend the usual antidotes to poverty in the form of increased government subsidies, which seems like a hard sell in today's America. They also recommend somehow coming up with more good paying jobs and a better social safety net. With good paying jobs harder and harder to create, a universal basic income may be the only answer left that can prevent massive poverty and all that comes with it- crime, drug use, hopelessness, and death. America needs to stop blaming the poor and look at all of the enormous potential that is being wasted.

Poorly Understood is a sobering, informative book on poverty and the myths surrounding it, and I recommend it to anyone who is comfortable or struggling, so that we can all build a better country together for the future and for the next generations.

For more from Dr. Rank about the book, here is an interview he did that spells out more of his research.

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