Three questions with Mark Rank on economic insecurity

What do you think your risk is for falling into poverty in the next 10 or 15 years?

Five percent? Probably under 20 percent, right? According to research from Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare, and Thomas Hirschl, a sociology professor at Cornell, your risk could be much higher.

Rank and Hirschl are the authors of Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes, which uses the Panel Study of Income Dynamics — the longest-running longitudinal household survey in the world — to paint a picture of income inequality in the United States. Using the same data, the two created a poverty risk calculator (confrontingpoverty.org) that uses five factors — race, education level, gender, marital status and age — to tell you your risk of falling into poverty in the next five, 10 or 15 years.

A white, unmarried, female in her early 40s with an associate’s degree or higher has a nearly 40 percent chance of falling into poverty in the next 15 years. A non-white woman in the same position has a 60 percent chance. For men and married people, the risk is lower — sometimes dramatically so.

“A lot of times, people are surprised that their risk is as high as it is, but you have to take into account that we’re looking over a long period of time,” Rank explains. “Events occur, people lose a job, a marriage splits up, a health problem arises. These are the kinds of things that can throw people into poverty.”

With his poverty calculator, Rank wants to spark a discussion about the nature of poverty and why it affects certain people disproportionately, but also get people to realize economic insecurity is something that affects everyone.

“Poverty is often thought about as occurring to somebody else rather than to me,” Rank says. “This is putting it in people’s back yard and saying, ‘Actually, your risk is not as small as you might think it is.’”

What does economic insecurity look like today?

A guy who was working here in St. Louis in a factory, an automobile plant, and he had a good job, good benefits, these kinds of things. Well, what happened? The plant closed down. He was out of luck. And his income dropped significantly. He experienced poverty, and then he tried to piece some things together to get back on his feet but was never able to reach the level that he was before this happened.

Is the American middle class in trouble?

I think that the middle class is in trouble. And it’s reflective in the rising income and wealth inequality. Basically, what’s happened is that those at the bottom and those at the top have been growing, and the middle has been hollowing out. And so we really need to think seriously about policies that strengthen and build the middle class rather than continuing down this road of widening inequality.

How can we reduce economic insecurity?

What’s happened over the last 40 years or so is that the economy has been changing. We’ve been producing more and more low-wage jobs, jobs without benefits. And I think we need to think seriously about creating enough jobs that provide a living wage, that can support families. And so that to me is the most important thing. I would say the other thing that’s really important is thinking about having a strong safety net to protect people when they do face times of poverty and that would include things like health insurance, childcare, housing assistance these kinds of things that we’ve stepped away from over the last 40 years but I think is really important and we need to re-think those areas.

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