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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcast that aims to spark civic engagement through in-depth conversations with citizen changemakers. American democracy is a living, breathing mechanism whose well-being deserves to be cultivated and protected, and now more than ever, the need to be an engaged citizen is critical. We explore how each of us has the power to shape our society and fulfill our shared civic responsibility.

May 27, 2021

Musical Chairs

American poverty is a bit like a game of musical chairs. The US only has good opportunities for 8 out of 10 Americans, meaning 2 people always lose. Instead of adding new opportunities or chairs, we shuffle the opportunities around, but 2 of every 10 people still end up without the opportunities. This shows that poverty is a result of the systems we have in place, not personal shortcoming, and if we continue shuffling the opportunities, we will continue having a poverty problem.

Poverty Myths

Being poor in the US is subject to several damaging myths that make it harder to reduce poverty rates country wide. We think of a poverty rate between 10-15% of the US population, but shockingly 60-75% of Americans will spend at least one year of their lives in poverty. Another myth blames poor Americans for their own poverty, not the systems that maintain poverty in America. We also assume the costs of poverty are borne by the poor, but US taxpayers pay more than $1 trillion per year due to the externalities of poverty.

Social Safety Nets

The US has a much weaker social safety net than other developed countries. We view poverty as a personal shortcoming that is not to be rewarded with welfare programs or healthcare. Since we think the poor are undeserving of help, we do not invest in social safety nets, creating high rates of poverty. Social safety nets reduce poverty by 75-80% in other counties, whereas the US safety net only reduces it by 25-30%. The most successful anti-poverty program in the US is Social Security.

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Mark R. Rank is recognized as a foremost expert on issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice. His research on the life course risk of poverty has demonstrated for the first time that most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their lives. To date, he has written 10 books on a range of subjects, including an exploration of the American Dream, a new understanding of poverty and inequality, and the role of luck and chance in shaping the course of our lives. In addition, he has published articles in numerous academic journals across a wide variety of fields.

He has provided research expertise to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as many national organizations involved in issues of economic and social justice. His work has been cited by then-President Barack Obama, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

You can check out his book Poorly Understood here.