Most Americans Experience Poverty Sometime In Adult Life, Study Finds

April 07, 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. 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.
Mark Rank, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Social Work
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
Washington University in St. Louis
Office: 314-935-5694

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.

Washington University in St. Louis

Related Poverty Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 second wave in Myanmar causes dramatic increases in poverty
New evidence combining surveys from urban and rural Myanmar and simulation analysis find COVID-19 second wave dramatically increasing poverty and food insecurity.

Advancing the accurate tracking of energy poverty
IIASA researchers have developed a novel measurement framework to track energy poverty that better aligns with the services people lack rather than capturing the mere absence of physical connections to a source of electricity.

If you're poor, poverty is an environmental issue
A survey from Cornell researchers -- conducted among more than 1,100 US residents -- found that there were, in fact, demographic differences in how people viewed environmental issues, with racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income people more likely to consider human factors such as racism and poverty as environmental, in addition to more ecological issues like toxic fumes from factories or car exhaust.

Poverty associated with suicide risk in children and adolescents
Between 2007 to 2016, nearly 21,000 children ages 5-19 years old died by suicide.

New index maps relationships between poverty and accessibility in Brazil
Poor transportation availability can result in poor access to health care and employment, hence reinforcing the cycle of poverty and concerning health outcomes such as low life expectancy and high child mortality in rural Brazil.

Repeated periods of poverty accelerate the ageing process
People who have found themselves below the relative poverty threshold four or more times in their adult life age significantly earlier than others.

Poverty as disease trap
The realities of subsistence living in a region of Senegal hard hit by schistosomiasis make reinfection likely, despite mass drug administration.

Persistent poverty affects one in five UK children
Persistent poverty affects one in five children in the UK, and is associated with poor physical and mental health in early adolescence, suggests research published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Poverty leaves a mark on our genes
In this study, researchers found evidence that poverty can become embedded across wide swaths of the genome.

Satellite images reveal global poverty
How far have we come in achieving the UN's sustainable development goals that we are committed to nationally and internationally?

Read More: Poverty News and Poverty Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to