Apr. 8, 1999 St. Louis, April 7, 1999 -- Americans have long accepted the notion that "there will always be poor among us," but a soon-to-be published study may make that truism less comfortable by showing that a majority of Americans will themselves live in poverty for some portion of their adult lives.
"Nearly two-thirds of all Americans and more than 90 percent of African Americans will experience at least one year of living below the poverty line during their lifetime," said Mark R. Rank, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor of George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study, conducted by Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, a professor of rural sociology at Cornell University, is based on an analysis of income data for thousands of Americans for a 25-year period ending in 1992, a span in which official poverty rates fluctuated between 11 and 15 percent.
Although agencies have long tracked the number of people currently living in poverty, this new study is the first to offer solid estimates on an individual's odds of experiencing poverty across a lifespan. The results, to be published in the May 1999 issue of the journal Social Work, provide a startling picture of just how common the experience of poverty is in America.
An average American, now age 20, has about a 60 percent chance of spending at least one year living in poverty at some point in the future.
By age 35, about 31 percent of the U.S. population will have experienced a year in poverty. By age 65, the figure rises to 51 percent, and by age 85, it exceeds 66 percent.
African-Americans face much more daunting odds -- nearly 50 percent will experience a year of poverty before age 25; more than 60 percent by age 35; nearly 85 percent by age 65; and a whopping 91 percent will have spent a year in poverty by age 75. Americans tend to think of poverty as "something that happens to someone else," but this first-of-a-kind analysis by Rank and Hirschl drives home the fact that poverty is a mainstream issue, one that can not be attributed simply to individual lack of motivation, questionable morals and so on. Furthermore, the findings provide a new and powerful argument for the importance and the retention of an adequate social safety net based on individual self-interest.
"For the majority of Americans, the question is not if they will experience poverty, but when," the study concludes. "Rather than an isolated event that occurs only to what has been labeled the "underclass," the reality is that the majority of Americans will encounter poverty firsthand during their adult lifetimes."
And, while the study clearly contradicts the popular notion that poverty is a problem only for blacks, its findings do demonstrate just how few blacks in this country are able to completely escape the hardship of poverty in their lifetimes.
"The fact that virtually every African American will experience poverty at some point during his or her adulthood speaks volumes as to the economic meaning of being black in America," Rank writes.
Rank, an expert on poverty, welfare and social policy, is the author of "Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America" (Columbia University Press, 1994). The book, which shatters many common myths about welfare and the poor, is based on 10 years of research involving extensive data analysis and hundreds of face-to-face interviews with welfare recipients. Other recent research includes the analysis of a national survey of 13,000 American households to determine the extent of intergenerational welfare use.
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