Stop Tackling Poverty

“Increasingly there are two Americas: one is secure, one is insecure,” argues Jonathan Morduch, co-author of The Financial Diaries.

In our six-part series on the decline of America’s suburbs, we’ve explored the complexity of work-life stress in the suburbs when it comes to income volatility, housing insecurity, access to social services, and transportation. In much of the existing policy conversation about these issues, they fall under the framework of the “suburbanization of poverty.” But framing these problems as causes and symptoms of suburban poverty is misleading. What Americans are facing almost universally, in and out of the suburbs, is a new norm of persistent economic insecurity—a sense that they are one bad event from devastation. That’s a problem, whether people qualify as poor.

We used to think we could look around and “see” poverty, in a poor city neighborhood across the proverbial railroad tracks, or a poor town, and that’s how we knew it was there and a problem. Or because being black and being poor were conflated, which was how policymakers and the wider public often “identified” poverty in America. Think, for instance, about Donald Trump responding to a question about U.S. racial divisions by characterizing those living in our “inner cities” as “living in hell.” But, if there ever was, there’s no longer such a thing as middle-class, poverty-free places. And the current economic indicators policymakers rely on aren’t helping to make this any clearer.

Most people will experience poverty in their lifetimes temporarily due to job loss, illness, family splitting up, to name a few causes. But just because you’re not poor, that is to say falling below the official poverty line, doesn’t mean you don’t struggle; the technical measure doesn’t capture experiences of insecurity. We need to stop focusing on who is and isn’t poor at a given point in time and start thinking about economic insecurity as a new normal, in the suburbs and elsewhere.

Why? Our current measures lead us to treat poverty as a minority problem, with anti-poverty programs targeted just at that minority. According to the U.S. Official Poverty Measure (OPM), in 2016, approximately 12.7 percent of the U.S. population was living in poverty, and almost half were those living in extreme poverty. Authored by Mollie Orshansky, the OPM stems from President Johnson’s War on Poverty, which began in 1964 with the Economic Opportunity Act and culminated in the Social Security Act amendments of 1965.

- Slate