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What America Gets Wrong About Poverty — And Why That Matters

Mark Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.
James Byard
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Mark Rank's new book, "Poorly Understood," aims to upend the popular American conception of poverty.

Conjure up an image of poverty in the U.S., writes Mark Rank, and you might well imagine someone who lives in the inner city, who is Black or Latino, who collects welfare and doesn’t want to work. That’s often poverty’s portrayal in the popular imagination, to say nothing of the media.

But the data suggests a much different set of facts. The majority of poor people in this country are white. They are more likely to live in the suburbs than a large city, with some of the most deep-seated poverty in rural areas. And far from spending decades on public assistance, they are more likely to turn to a program for temporary help. In fact, a majority of Americans will turn to such help over their lifetimes.

As Rank writes in his new book “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty” (co-written by Lawrence M. Eppard and Heather E. Bullock), “[P]overty is often perceived to be an issue of ‘them’ rather than an issue of ‘us,’ that those who experience poverty are viewed as strangers to mainstream America.”

Instead, he concludes, “The truth is that impoverishment is much closer than most of us would like to think.”

'The Shift in Thinking That We Need'
Listen to Mark Rank discuss his findings on St. Louis on the Air

A professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, Rank has created the “Confronting Poverty” calculator, which helps hit home that each of us is at risk.

“People think, ‘Oh, it's not going to happen to me,’” Rank explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It turns out that 60% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line, and three-quarters of Americans will encounter either poverty or very near poverty. So the idea that poverty just affects a small subset of Americans is clearly incorrect. Actually, the majority of the vast majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point in their lives.”

Rank’s true subject, though, is growing inequality in America, which he traces back to 1980 and extends through Clinton-era welfare reform to the present day. His research compares the U.S. to other high-octane economies around the world, showing not only that poverty levels are higher here, but that mobility is lower. A person born into poverty in the U.S., he writes, is more likely to stay impoverished than in wealthy nations.

Rank blames both of those things on the relatively small safety net here.

“When I talk about the United States compared to other countries, the main reason why the United States has such a high level of poverty compared to these countries is because we do so little to address poverty,” he said.

Of President Clinton’s attempt to “end welfare as we know it,” Rank acknowledged that critics’ direst predictions did not come true.

“If the measure of success is reducing the number of folks on welfare or on a safety net, then that was successful,” he said. “However, to me, the measure of success is, ‘Did we reduce poverty?’ And the answer is no.”

For Rank, the American economy is a “large-scale version of musical chairs”: Someone is always going to miss out. And so rather than blame the players who weren’t fast enough, or were poorly positioned to grab a chair, he questions why we’re content with offering too few chairs in the first place.

“Given that there aren't enough decent-paying jobs, given that we don't have social policies to protect people, we're going to have some folks lose out,” he said. “Those folks are going to have characteristics that put them at a greater disadvantage of losing out, like less education, single-parent families, and so on. But that only explains who in particular loses out, not why the game produces losers in the first place. And that's the shift in thinking that we need.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.