Entire Zip codes were dismissed as not worthy of concern. “People here are different from you and me,” I was told by another officer. “You and me, we don’t want to get in trouble or get hurt or go to jail. Like, it would be a big deal to us. These people? They’re so used to it, they just don’t care.” Also, the poor had too many children, more than they could afford or handle: “They oughta clip these people, you know? Stop them reproducing,” I overheard an emergency medical technician telling one of my colleagues.
These aren’t politically correct views, but they’re not unique to cops and medics. On the contrary: Almost everyone thinks they understand the causes and consequences of poverty, but many of the most widespread assumptions Americans make about poverty are wrong.
I have often wished for a simple, accessible book that could set the record straight — something not too jargon-laden, not too academic and not too preachy, the kind of book you could hand to a cynical street cop, your neighbor or your Uncle Fred, and expect that it might actually be read.
In “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty,” Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard and Heather E. Bullock have produced just such a book, setting out to systematically catalogue and debunk the most widely believed myths about poverty and the poor: The poor are different from the rest of us. They’re mostly minorities. If they just finished school and worked hard, they wouldn’t be poor. They have too many children. They’re all on welfare. Rank, Eppard and Bullock address these misconceptions, and quite a few more, in a straightforward and thorough manner.
To begin, they note, poverty should not be viewed as an “us versus them” phenomenon. The poor are not a static group: In fact, “between the ages of 20 and 75 years, nearly 60 percent of Americans will experience living for at least 1 year below the official poverty line, while three-fourths of Americans will encounter poverty or near-poverty.” Indeed, “for most Americans, it would appear that the question is not if they will encounter poverty, but rather, when.” More than a third of Americans have too little money saved to handle an emergency bill of $400, and in a nation with a badly tattered social safety net, “losing a job, families splitting up, or medical and health emergencies, all . . . have the potential to start a downward spiral into poverty.”
Given this, the impoverished population resembles that of the nation as a whole: mostly suburban and mostly White. Despite the misconception that poverty is largely an urban phenomenon, “there are now more poor people living in suburban areas of the country than are living in central cities,” and “the most deep-seated poverty in this country is generally found in rural America,” rather than in inner cities. Pockets of persistent poverty exist in Appalachia, in the Mississippi Delta region, along the Texas-Mexico border, in the central corridor of California, in the Southwest and in the northern Plains — all places where well-paid jobs are scarce.
Even when the poor find jobs, the work is rarely enough to bring them permanently out of poverty; the minimum wage is so low that even two adults working full time at minimum-wage jobs would not earn enough to lift themselves and a child above the poverty line. And no, the authors patiently explain, people on welfare don’t keep reproducing in order to stay on welfare; in fact, “women on welfare have a slightly lower fertility rate than women in the general population.”
So why do so many people continue to believe so much that is flat-out wrong? Rank, Eppard and Bullock offer a brief tour of the psychology of false beliefs, from implicit bias and confirmation bias to the fundamental attribution error, as well as a sociological explanation of why elites have an incentive to foster continued misconceptions about the poor: It is, in the end, politicians and the affluent who benefit from narratives that justify rising inequality.
“Poorly Understood” offers solutions as well as myth-busting. Although the causes of poverty are numerous and complex, the authors note, there is nothing inevitable about continued high rates of poverty and inequality. Examining the evidence, they conclude that several straightforward policy changes could dramatically alter the nation’s socioeconomic landscape: We could increase the minimum wage enough to enable full-time minimum-wage workers to rise above the poverty line, for instance, or alternatively provide low-wage workers with tax credits large enough to accomplish the same thing. The government could also “provide targeted wage subsidies to employers in order to stimulate job creation,” create public-service employment opportunities, offer child cash allowances, subsidize child care, provide affordable health care, adopt policies that enable the poor to build assets and generally do as most European countries have done, creating a social safety net sufficiently robust to mitigate the economic impact of disruptive events.
If there is anything to gripe about in “Poorly Understood,” it’s that it largely sacrifices style and analytic depth on the altar of clarity and simplicity. The very things that make this the kind of book you could hand to a cop, a neighbor or a cantankerous uncle may make it unsatisfying for more sophisticated readers. Much of the time, “Poorly Understood” reads like a text produced for an introductory college course. At the end of most chapters, the authors include brief comments from some of the scholars whose work they cite, but these “expert appraisals” add little, as they generally restate the points each chapter has already made.
All the same, “Poorly Understood” makes a valuable contribution. The very repetitiousness of some sections helps drive home a simple but vital point: Poverty is a result of deliberate policy choices, not character defects. The poor are no lazier, less capable or less intelligent than those of us who are fortunate enough (for now!) not to be poor.
Or, to paraphrase the famous exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: If the poor are different from you and me, it is mostly because they have less money.
What America Gets Wrong About Poverty
By Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard and Heather E. Bullock