The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Americans struggling with poverty, ‘the safety net in the United States is very, very weak,’ expert says

Mark Robert Rank is the co-author of “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty.”
Mark Robert Rank is the co-author of “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty.” (James Byard/WUSTL Photos)
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Mark Robert Rank, 66, is a professor of social welfare at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the co-author of "Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty."

According to your analysis, 60 percent of Americans will spend at least a year of their life in poverty. That’s just a shocking number for the wealthiest country in the world.

Yeah, and a lot of people are surprised at that. We show that 60 percent of the population between 20 and 75 will experience one year below the official poverty line, which is very conservative. And three-quarters of Americans will experience either poverty or near poverty, just above the poverty line. So people ask me: Why are those numbers so large? And one of the reasons is: If you look over longer periods of time, what happens is that things occur to us that we didn’t anticipate. So things like losing a job or a family splitting up or getting sick or a pandemic occurring. When they occur in the United States there’s not a lot to protect people. The safety net in the United States is very, very weak. So when these things happen, folks are very much at risk of falling into poverty.

Do you think as a country we’re sort of in denial about how close so many of us are to living in poverty?

I think so. Part of it is the ideology that the United States is a land of opportunity and, if you work hard, you’re able to work your way up the ladder. And poverty is really running against that ideal. We don’t like to think that this can happen — not only to somebody else but to myself, partially because of that overall ideology that we have.

You argue that one of the great fallacies about America is that if you work hard, you won’t have to worry about being poor.

That’s right. What we basically say is, sure, to get ahead in life, hard work is important. Regardless of whether you’re poor, middle class or rich, you have to put in some effort to get ahead. But just working hard doesn’t mean that you’re going to get ahead. In other words: It’s generally a necessary but not sufficient condition. There are lots and lots of people that I’ve talked to and others have talked to in our research on this that are working really, really hard. But they’re not getting ahead. And the reason they’re not getting ahead is that there are so many jobs today that don’t pay a living wage. So you can be working at these jobs full-time, and you’re still going to be either in poverty or near poverty.

Another fact in the book that surprised me is that the vast majority of people in poverty in America don’t live in cities. They’re in the suburbs and rural communities.

The sort of mental image that a lot of people have of poverty is, you know, inner-city poverty. You know, folks of color in poverty for long periods of time. And there certainly are folks that fall into that picture. But most people don’t. Only roughly 10 percent of everybody in poverty in the United States is living in a high-poverty neighborhood. Ninety percent of folks are not. There’s more poverty now in suburban areas than in central cities. And some of the deepest-seated poverty is in rural America. So Appalachia, the Deep South. The point of all of this is to say that the reach of poverty is really wide. It affects a lot of different people in a lot of different situations. And it’s not just this one image that we often have.

What sort of job has the media done covering poverty?

It’s not only the media, but folks in general tend to look at the reasons for poverty as the result of individual failure. And the argument that we make in the book is that poverty is really a structural failing, not an individual failure. And I use this analogy that I think is really powerful, because people can relate to the analogy of musical chairs: It’s the idea that what we’re doing in this country is we’re playing a game of musical chairs, where we have 10 players but only eight chairs available. So we can [ask]: Why did those two people lose out? Well, they lost out because, you know, they weren’t as fast or they weren’t as agile or whatever. In terms of poverty, they didn’t have enough education; they were from a single-parent family.

But given that the game is structured that there’s only eight chairs for 10 people playing, then it doesn’t really matter what those individual characteristics are in terms of why poverty is occurring. The reason poverty is occurring is because we’re producing lots of low-wage jobs. We don’t have social programs to protect people. Those are structural kinds of failings. And so individual feelings help to explain who loses out at the game, but it doesn’t explain why the game is producing losers in the first place. And that’s kind of the shift that we need — not only in the media, but, you know, just in the general population.

Yeah, I mean, there is sort of an American mind-set, which is just, well, there are winners and losers, right?

Yeah, but why does there have to be winners and losers? Why can’t there be a lot of winners? The idea is that if we invest in our most important resource, which is our people, our children and so on, we’re all going to gain as a result of that. And one of the ways to think about this is a chapter in the book where we talk about the economic cost of childhood poverty. We estimated what are the effects of childhood poverty on increasing health-care costs, criminal justice costs and lowered economic productivity. And we came up with a number — a pretty conservative number, actually — that childhood poverty was costing the United States slightly over $1 trillion a year. That was about 28 percent of the federal budget in 2015.

So the issue is not are we paying or are we not paying; it’s how we’re paying. We’re paying for poverty on the back end of the issue rather than on the front end of the issue. And it’s always more expensive to do it on the back. So when you say, yeah, there’s winners and losers, there doesn’t have to be. I mean, we can be investing in everybody. And by doing that, we all win. Our economy is more productive, we have lower health-care costs and so on. So I view this as kind of a win-win situation.

You wrote about how the Depression brought about the New Deal and other social safety measures. I’m wondering if you think the pandemic will be as transformative as the Depression when it comes to systemic changes in the way we address poverty?

I’m not sure. I mean, the Depression took place over, you know, five, six, seven years. And it looks like, fortunately we’re coming out of the other side of the pandemic and things will be improving. So I don’t know. One of the things that’s happened is, in Joe Biden’s pandemic relief fund there was money set aside for basically a child allowance for families. And I think that will happen. And that’s actually pretty radical for the United States. That’s been around in European countries for decades. But for the United States, that’s a pretty radical idea. And I think that what will happen is, that will go into effect in July and will run for a year. When people start to get used to that idea, it might be hard to take that away.

This interview has been edited and condensed.