The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your chances of becoming poor may be higher than you think

Illustration by Kathleen Rudell/Washington Post.
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The odds of striking it rich by playing the Powerball are 1 in 292 million -- worse than the odds of being struck by lightning -- yet that doesn’t stop us from daydreaming about being flooded with wealth and sailing off to Bali.

The opposite, however, doesn’t appear to be true: Most of us spend relatively little time imagining what it would be like to be plunged into poverty, even though the odds of that happening are far, far greater.

Just what are your chances of falling into poverty? Sociologists Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University and Mark Rank of Washington University have calculated how likely you are to become poor based solely on your age, education, race and marital status. The calculator predicts probabilities for five, 10 and 15 years in the future.

Use the calculator to find out your risk of falling into poverty

Now, probabilities aren't predictions. You'll notice that the calculator doesn't ask about your income, your savings and debt and how well your 401(k) is performing -- or if you even have one. Certainly, those factors influence how well individuals can weather unexpected life events, such as illness or unemployment. But in the aggregate, Hirschl said, the four criteria used in the calculator are the strongest predictors of economic distress.

Hirschl and Rank analyzed more than 40 years of income data for 5,000 households and personally interviewed dozens of Americans for their book, Chasing the American Dream. Technically, the researchers are calculating the risk of being not just at poverty, but also near poverty, which they define as income that’s up to 50 percent above the official poverty level.

By that measure, more than half of Americans experience poverty at some point during their prime working years, the authors discovered. (Wonkblog did a deeper dive into the data last summer.) The risk can be as high as 76 percent for some Americans and as low as 5 percent for others. Education and marriage can change a person’s odds significantly. But a common theme that emerged in the author’s research was that the risk of becoming poor is often higher than Americans of any demographic group realize.

“Americans are optimistic, which is good,” Hirschl said in an interview. “However, a lot of time we tend to erase our bad experiences, and we’re not accounting for the worst-case scenario that has already happened to us in many cases.”

The upside is that though the risk of poverty may be higher than you think, most Americans also leave poverty relatively quickly. Hirschl said poverty generally lasts one to three years; only a minority of the population remain in poverty for an extended period of time.

The same is true for the very rich. In a separate paper, Hirschl and Rank found that roughly 1 out of 10 Americans will enjoy life in the top 1 percent at some point during their working life, but most of them lose that elite status after a few years.

“There’s a lot more nuance and a lot more ups and downs in the life course,” Hirschl said in an interview. “There’s a lot of circular mobility.”

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