Spotlight Exclusives

Pandemic Underlines Poverty’s Enduring and Harmful Myths

Mark Robert Rank Mark Robert Rank, posted on

The gulf between reality and the demeaning, divisive stereotypes about American poverty has never been more apparent than during the coronavirus pandemic, an event that has made clear that the vast majority of Americans need help during times of crisis. In a timely new book, Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty, Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard and Heather E. Bullock examine the common myths about poverty and inequality and identify policies that might render them a relic of the past. Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke with Spotlight recently about the book. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The book seems incredibly timely, given what we’re going through. Tell us how the project got started.

You’re right – it’s extremely timely. The genesis was that I was talking with my co-author one day and he said, “You know, there’s never been a book that takes on the different myths of poverty and inequality.” Both of us thought this would be a great topic for a book, so we each sat down and wrote out a list of myths, put them together, and came up with the outline for the book.  It’s designed so that each chapter debunks a specific myth related to poverty, welfare, or inequality.  I’m familiar with the literature, and I can’t think of another book that takes this approach.  And yes, it’s very timely, particularly with the new administration and the hope that maybe now we can begin to address some of these issues.

I want to get to the new administration, but first, what’s an example of a particularly pernicious myth?

There’s plenty of them, but the one we start out with is the myth that poverty only happens to somebody else – that it’s not going to happen to me, and therefore why worry or be concerned about it?  We begin by saying right off the bat, if you look across peoples’ lives, the chances of experiencing poverty is high. Sixty percent of Americans will experience at least one year below the official poverty line between the ages of 20 and 75, and three-quarters will experience either poverty or near-poverty. So this idea that poverty happens to somebody else doesn’t hold water.  A broader myth says that poverty is really an issue of “them” and not an issue of “us.”  We also debunk this in several places throughout the book.

How has the pandemic impacted that particular myth? I would like to think that people are much more aware of how close they are to falling into economic calamity, but what do you think?

I think you’re right. When we’ve seen some movement in social policy, it’s often been because of a broad, structural collapse, as in the 1930s.  Some people are saying that the Biden administration has the opportunity for another New Deal.  Just a simple statistic ­– the Federal Reserve conducts a survey every year and for 2019 they found that 37 percent of Americans didn’t have $400 to cover an emergency. That means that there are a lot of people really close to economic catastrophe.  I think that what’s happening now economically brings that to the fore, but it also allows us to think of poverty as more of a structural failing than an individual failing.

Why don’t you talk more about that particular myth – the idea that you should just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

That’s a huge myth – that poverty is the result of individual failing, not working hard enough, not having the right attitudes, or making bad choices in your life. That’s the way we largely view poverty in this country.  And what we show is that actually, most of poverty is the result of structural failings. That is, the economy doesn’t produce enough livable wage jobs, we don’t have a social safety net that adequately protects people, and so on and so forth.

The way I like to illustrate this is with the analogy of musical chairs. The analogy is that we can either focus on who loses out in the game or we can focus on why the game produces losers in the first place.  If we think about a game of musical chairs and there are 10 people playing and 8 chairs available, the music stops, two people lose, we can say they weren’t as fast as everybody else or they were in a bad position when the music stopped.  But if we step back and say, wait a minute, the game is set up such that two people are going to lose, then it really doesn’t matter what their characteristics are, because two people are bound to be left out without a chair.  And that’s what we’ve been doing in this country, we’ve been focusing on who loses out in the game rather than why the game produces losers in the first place.  Something like the pandemic, where there’s a clear structural failing, can begin to pull the curtain away and show that these are problems largely on a macro level.

I want to get to some potential policy solutions but from a narrative standpoint, how much is the media to blame?

Maybe it’s just my experience, but I’ve always encountered folks in the media who are really interested in thinking about the root causes of poverty.  I think the issue here is this whole idea of alternative facts, and that your facts are just as good as mine. That’s simply not true.  That’s why we do research, to try to uncover the realities that are out there.  The realities of poverty are quite, quite different than the myths.  A deeper question is, if that’s the case, why have these myths continued? Why do they continue to be believed?  We take this up at the end of the book.  One of my co-authors, Heather Bullock, writes about various psychological reasons while I discuss some of the sociological reasons.  One particular explanation for why the myths continue is that some people have definitely benefited from these myths. Politicians, for example, have used the myth of the welfare freeloader over and over again to score political points.  Ronald Reagan did that, Bill Clinton did that, Donald Trump has done that.  Also, this myth that people get what they deserve suits the status quo.  The folks at the top have nothing to be concerned about in terms of poverty and inequality; it’s not their fault. That’s a very convenient way of thinking about things when in reality, this is a structural problem and we all bear a responsibility.

There’s a lot of energy right now in making newsrooms more diverse, both in terms of gender and ethnicity but also in socio-economic background, and that can make a real difference in coverage.

In one of our chapters, we talk about the media portrayal of folks in poverty or using welfare programs and that there has been a slant in portraying them as being primarily non-white and specifically African-American.  That’s another myth that we talk about in the book.  Certainly, folks of color have the greatest risk of poverty but the largest group in poverty are whites, and that’s because they represent a larger percentage of the population.  Too often we think of poverty through the lens of race and think, once again, it’s somebody else, not us.  It turns out that the reach of poverty is extremely wide.  It touches a vast segment of the population.  You can go down just about any street or block in America and you’ll probably find someone who is in some economic trouble, particularly with the pandemic.

Let’s talk about some of the policy solutions you identify and how optimistic you are, or not, with the new administration coming in.

Actually, I’m quite optimistic.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been at the bottom and can only go up, but I’m pretty optimistic.   The president’s relief package being proposed has a child allowance in it, and (Sen.) Mitt Romney (R-UT) has also proposed this idea.  That’s a pretty radical idea for the United States.  European countries have had this for decades and the idea is, if you have a child, you get some help from the government on a monthly basis to help raise that child.  The fact that you have both President Biden and Senator Romney proposing versions of this idea is really positive.  If poverty is a lack of money, then a very direct way of addressing this is to provide economic assistance to families.  It’s a subset of the broader universal basic income idea, which Andrew Yang talked about last year in his presidential campaign and that has been gaining traction in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Another hopeful sign is that President Biden has come out and said that we should have a $15 minimum wage – it’s 7.25 an hour and hasn’t been raised since 2009, and that’s simply wrong.  If you work fulltime, you shouldn’t find yourself in poverty.  The fact that he’s proposing a $15 minimum wage is very, very positive.  It’s probably not going to come to pass right now, but the discussion is there, and the understanding that poverty represents a structural problem is important.  So I’m pretty optimistic right now that we’re at least seeing discussions about these issues and ideas.

One of the interesting things about the Romney proposal, which I know many on the left disagree with, is that it’s universal. It wouldn’t be aimed just at low-income kids and would underline this notion that all kids have rights, all kids deserve help.

That’s exactly correct, and as I said, European countries have had such universal policies for decades and they’ve been very successful in reducing poverty.  The fact that they’re universal tends to increase their popularity and support in the population.  When you compare the United States to other countries, we’re at the high end for both poverty and inequality.  Is that an individual failing?  No.  It’s a structural and policy failing; it’s because our programs don’t address poverty while other countries are very proactive.

One of the things we should really move towards in the future, is conceptualizing living above the poverty line as a basic human right.  If you go back to FDR, he proposed a second Bill of Rights focusing on economic security, and he also proposed the idea of freedom from want.  From this perspective, freedom is not only about having certain rights, but also about being free from economic destitution. That’s a different way of looking at this issue that I think is very important.

How much do these myths play into the economic populism, the rise of Trump, these last four years that we’ve gone through? And how much more difficult does the strength of that movement make trying to scale back some of these myths?

That’s a really interesting question.  What Donald Trump was tapping into was this idea that, for the last 40 or 50 years, a large group of Americans have not been getting ahead.  If you look at male median wages for fulltime workers, they were slightly higher in 1973 than they are today once you take into account inflation.  Trump was tapping into this reality; that people are working hard and yet they’re not getting ahead.  But what he was doing was directing the source of that problem into scapegoating other groups – immigrants and nonwhites.  Rather, the problem is, as we’ve been talking about, a structural problem.  We need policies that actually reduce inequality and poverty. People are rightly upset that they’re not getting ahead, but they have failed to understand the real reason behind why they’re not doing better.

We have misunderstood this issue for decades.  Poverty is an injustice that affects far too many Americans.  By understanding it in this different light, we can begin to move forward and finally start to address poverty and inequality. Hopefully, our book will help to jumpstart this process.

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