Although the focus of homeland security has been on reducing the threat of terrorism, the growing threat of poverty is rapidly undermining the nation’s economic vitality and has fueled rising disillusionment, says one of the nation’s leading scholars of poverty issues.
“We need to wake up in America and realize that our homeland security is tied as much if not more to the fact that huge numbers of Americans are being left behind economically, and that as a result, the American Dream is quickly turning into an American nightmare,” says Mark R. Rank, Ph.D., the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.
“We currently have the highest rates of poverty in the industrialized world,” says Rank. “It’s no coincidence that we also have the highest rates of incarceration, poor health, unequal education and low paying jobs among the developed countries. This undermines and threatens us all.”
In his recently released book from Oxford University Press, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, Rank argues that we’ve completely misunderstood the nature and meaning of poverty, leading to an institutional structure that leaves millions of Americans economically vulnerable.
He offers a new platform for thinking about American poverty and some strategies to eradicate the problem.
“The myth that poverty is simply the result of individual inadequacies such as a lack of education, skills or being a single parent family is flat out wrong,” says Rank.
“These characteristics only explain who is more likely to lose out at the economic game, rather than why the game produces losers in the first place,” he says.
“We are playing a large-scale version of musical chairs in this country where there are 10 players but only 8 chairs. With the rising number of low-paying jobs, substantial unemployment, and a lack of affordable housing and health care, the game is structured in a way that ensures a significant percentage of the population is going to lose out, no matter what their characteristics may be.”
Poverty is “mainstream” now
In his new book, Rank offers several plans for reducing poverty in America. They include designing policies to ensure the existence of enough jobs that pay a living wage to support a family above the poverty line; investing in vital social goods such as health care, education and affordable housing; developing policies that build and strengthen the assets of both individuals and communities; and making sure that there is a reasonable safety net in place for those who fall through the cracks.
“These policies have the real potential to make America a more productive, livable and economically secure society,” says Rank, who also authored the groundbreaking book Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, which explored the circumstances of surviving on public assistance.
“Right now roughly three quarters of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 75 will at some point experience a year in poverty or near poverty,” says Rank. “Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that two thirds of Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will at some point use a welfare program, such as food stamps, and that 40 percent of Americans will use a welfare program in five or more separate years during their working-age adulthood.
“Poverty is actually a mainstream event experienced by the dominant racial group and not something that can be easily dismissed as a condition of marginalized groups,” adds Rank.