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In Conversation with Mark Rank

Summary:
Overview Equitable Growth in Conversation is a recurring series where we talk with economists and other academics to help us better understand whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability. In this installment, Equitable Growth Director of Family Economic Security Alix Gould-Werth speaks with Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studies issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice in the United States. His research on the life-course risk of poverty demonstrates that a majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their lives, providing a new understanding of poverty and inequality, and the role of luck and chance in

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Overview

Equitable Growth in Conversation is a recurring series where we talk with economists and other academics to help us better understand whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability. In this installment, Equitable Growth Director of Family Economic Security Alix Gould-Werth speaks with Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studies issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice in the United States. His research on the life-course risk of poverty demonstrates that a majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their lives, providing a new understanding of poverty and inequality, and the role of luck and chance in shaping the course of our lives. His latest book, with co-authors Heather Bullock, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Lawrence Eppard, a sociologist at Shippensburg University, is titled Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty.

In a recent conversation, Gould-Werth and Rank discuss:

  • How to usefully measure poverty in the United States
  • The actual causes of poverty
  • Poverty and race and ethnicity
  • Poverty and the broader U.S. macroeconomy
  • Myths about poverty and their consequences
  • Poverty and policymaking
  • Poverty and inequality in the United States

Alix Gould-Werth: I am here today with Mark Rank, and I am so glad that you are able to join us. Thanks for being here.

Mark Rank: Thanks for having me.

Gould-Werth: I want to jump right into the conversation because there’s a lot that’s interesting in your research that I’d like to cover. The first question I have is about the popular imagination of poverty and how it does or doesn’t contrast with what you find in your research.

When we look at the way poverty is portrayed in the popular media, we often see a picture of a static and permanent underclass. There’s the idea that poverty is something that only affects a small proportion of the population and that people who experience poverty usually can’t escape it. They’re stuck there.

So, I’m interested in knowing what your research shows about the actual chances of experiencing poverty and how long people would experience it for.

Rank: That’s a great place to start. You’re absolutely right that the popular idea out there is one, that folks who experience poverty are there for long periods of time. The other image is that poverty happens to somebody else, but it doesn’t happen to me. Much of the research that has been conducted focuses on the percent of the population that is poor in any given year, and that varies between 10 percent and 15 percent.

But a number of years ago, my colleague Tom Hirschl [a sociologist at Cornell University] and I wanted to look at the question, “What is the long-term risk of people experiencing poverty over the course of 20, 30, 40 years?” And so, we’ve been engaged in research addressing the question of the life chances of experiencing poverty. And it turns out that a clear majority of Americans, at some point during their adulthood, will experience poverty. And by poverty, we’re using the official U.S. definition of falling below a certain income level. It’s a pretty conservative measure.

What we find is that between the ages of 20 and 75, nearly 60 percent of Americans will experience at least 1 year in poverty, and three-quarters of Americans will experience either poverty or near-poverty.

What this research shows is that rather than thinking about poverty as an issue that happens to somebody else, we really should think about it as an issue that happens to many of us.

One question that people often ask is why are those numbers so large? That’s a pretty significant percentage of the population, but if you think about it, over the course of 20, 30, 40 years, things happen to people that they didn’t anticipate. Folks might lose a job, a family might split up, the breadwinners might get sick, or a pandemic might happen. All of these events have the potential to throw individuals into poverty. So, when you look over long periods of time, poverty is unfortunately a normative event in the United States.

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