Professor outlines steps to combat poverty

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The scope, causes and possible effective remedies of poverty were outlined in an address by Prof. Mark Rank of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Social Initiative Committee.

Rank is widely recognized for his expertise on the causes and potential remedies for poverty, and is one of the nation’s foremost speakers on the topic. His first book, Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, explored the conditions of surviving on public assistance, and achieved widespread national acclaim. His most recent book is One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, which provides a new understanding of poverty in America. Rank’s research indicates that a majority of Americans will experience poverty at least once during their lifetimes and will use a social safety net program at some point during their lives.

In his opening remarks, which were followed by an extensive question and answer session, Rank explored four poverty-related issues: “What do we know about the extent of poverty in America? How might we better understand the reasons behind such poverty? What are some solutions to American poverty? and why should we as a community be concerned about the issue of poverty and widening inequality?”

Regarding the extent of poverty in America, Rank said, “The measurement of poverty in 2006 was defined as income that ranged from $10,294 for a household of one, to $41,299 for a household of 9 or more; the poverty line for a family of four was $20,614. Using this measuring stick, the poverty rate in 2006 was 12.3 percent, or 36.5 million Americans, or around one out of eight Americans. This rate has been increasing steadily over the last five years.”

Rank added: “Over the past 30 years, the poverty rate has ranged between 11 and 15 percent. In the City of St. Louis last year, the overall rate of poverty was 26.8 percent, the sixth highest among cities over 250,000 in the United States. In St. Louis County, the poverty rate was 9.4 percent.”

Turning to the subject of how to arrive at a new understanding of American poverty, Rank said, “My book deals with this question to a large extent, and one of the main points that I make is that American poverty is largely the result of a failure at the structural level rather than the individual level, Rank said. “This is in contrast to the typical way that we’ve thought about poverty in the United States — that is, that it’s the result of individual failings such as not working hard enough, or not having adequate skills and education.”

Rank said that his research suggests “that individual deficiencies, such as lack of education or skills, helps to explain who’s more likely to be left out in the competition to locate and secure opportunities, but it can’t explain why there’s a shortage of opportunities in the first place.” He added that for the past three decades, America has been “producing more and more low paying jobs that are lacking in benefits, particularly health insurance. It is estimated that in the United States today, approximately one out of three jobs are classified as low-paying. That is they pay less than $11.50 an hour.” Rank emphasized that the unemployed figure of seven million people “doesn’t include approximately half a million Americans who have given up looking for work because they feel that there simply aren’t jobs available for them.”

In order to deal with the crisis of poverty, Rank said, “changes in various social supports and the social safety net will make a difference in terms of how well families are able to avoid poverty or near poverty. When such supports were increased through the War on Poverty initiatives in the 1960s, the elderly poverty rates sharply declined. Conversely, when social supports have been weakened and eroded, as in the case of children’s programs over the past 25 years, their rates of poverty have gone up.”

Among the strategies Rank proposes to help reduce American poverty are:

* Creating enough adequately paying jobs. This includes also supplementing and raising the wages of existing jobs; raising and indexing the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and creating enough jobs.

* Increasing the accessibility of key social and public goods, including: quality education; health care; affordable housing and child care.

* Buffering the economic consequences of family changes, including: child support policies; preventing teenage pregnancies.

* Building assets, both individual and community assets.

* Providing an effective safety net.

Rank insists that contrary to much of the political rhetoric, “evidence suggests that there is actually substantial public backing for each of the policy ideas suggested here. Overall, 75 percent of Americans agree with the statement, ‘This is a rich country which could afford to do much more to help the poor than we do now.’ These are not pie in the sky ideas. It is the self-interest of Americans to support these ideas.”

About 50 people attended Rank’s presentation, which was held in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.

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