Pearl River I first met Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, when we were both panelists at a forum at Loyola University in New Orleans evaluating the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. It was clear from his research then, more than fifteen years ago, that he was a fellow traveler and comrade on the fight for more equity and justice for low-and-moderate income families in America. When he sent me the manuscript for his new book, Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty, written with several co-authors, so that I could write a blurb after reading, I made him promise at the same time that he would be a guest on Wade’s World so that we could dig deep on the struggle to get people, mainly politicians, to face the facts about poverty, rather than manufacturing falsehoods that prevent real progress.
It’s important to underline some of the key arguments that Mark has made for years. One is the importance of understanding relative poverty versus absolute poverty. Mark and his colleagues define poverty on these terms as families making less than half of the median income in any country. In the US, that would be families with less than $30,000 annual income. In other countries, the figures would be different. Poverty is relational in other words, because money, goods, and status are country-specific, not one-size-fits-all across the globe. Looked at this way, the US has among the highest rates of poverty among industrial countries in the world. Another pillar, on which Mark’s arguments rest, is the fact that poverty is not a rare experience for Americans, it’s virtually a universal experience. His data has shown that 60% of Americans have experienced poverty at some point doing a year and 75% have experienced near poverty.
We ran through a catalogue of common myths while we talked. Poverty is whiter than minority. Poverty is increasingly more suburban and rural than urban. Poor people spend more conservatively than myth makers argue. Poverty is preventable with more money and investment in a real safety net. Education will not cure poverty. Most tellingly, Mark and his co-authors tackled the fact that the cost of poverty is enormous to the non-poor along with the society and economy as a whole. They reckoned the price at more than one-trillion per year. Furthermore, the payoff of investing in the poor produces amazing returns.
We both acknowledged that none of these reality checks based on hard data and experience mean that we can expect change. I did argue that now, like during the Great Depression, might be an opportunity for change, because the pandemic and its attendant economic collapse, with twenty million unemployed and almost everyone but the rich adversely impacted, might offer a window for change because a majority constituency of Americans has now felt the knife of poverty at their neck. During the pandemic it hasn’t been “those people,” but all of us. Mark agreed, and both of us felt that this is part of why President Biden’s stimulus program and similar proposals have been so popular, especially the cash transfers. There’s a huge bunch of beneficiaries now which creates a huge body of support for more of the same.
It’s an opportunity, if we don’t blow it.