Heidi Selberg,  Envision Board member

Earlier this year, the WBUR program “On Point” discussed poverty in the United States.  The guests and their key points are outlined below.  It’s remarkable that the points made so compellingly by sociologist Mark Robert Rank were outlined in a book published in 2004 and have received so little public discussion since. A key such point is that the majority of adults in the US will experience poverty as defined by the Federal Poverty Level during their lifetimes.  This has important implications for any work designed to address poverty or upward mobility, as poverty is not experienced by a fixed group of people who need to work their way out of the situation.  Rather, it is experienced widely.


  • Mark Robert Rank: Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare, Department of Sociology, Washington University in St Louis. Wrote “Chasing the American Dream”
  • Amy Glasmeier: Professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning, MIT Urban Planning Department, created the Living Wage Calcualtor
  • Kai Sinclair: guest navigating homelessness

Major Points:

  • The federal definition of poverty was defined in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty—they needed to understand the extent of the poverty (to continue the analogy, the strength of the enemy, in war terms). They created a measurement of the income needed to cover the costs of a minimally adequate lifestyle so they could determine the number of people in poverty.  This is known as the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). This defined poverty as having a clear line—either you’re in poverty or you are not.
  • In 1964, the FPL was ½ of the median income in the US. Today, the FPL is about ¼ of the median income, despite being updated annually.  (Rank)
    • Other industrialized counties consider poverty to be 60% of median income. (Glasmeier)
  • In the US, there is a prevalent concept of deserving and undeserving poor. That’s why the US has higher poverty levels—we do less to keep people out of poverty and to help them get out when in poverty. The US is steeped in the concept of rugged individualism—you do it on your own.  (Rank)
    • Other countries have a different philosophy of well-being. “Deserving” in other countries means that people shouldn’t be without housing, medical care, or decent food.
  • Poverty is mostly a structural problem. There are not enough decent-paying jobs, and there are many part-time jobs. Our policies are like musical chairs– we focus on who loses out at the game rather than why the game has winners and losers. (Rank)
  • Over the course of their lifetimes, 65% of Americans between the ages of 20-75 will experience at least one year below the FPL and three-quarters will experience poverty or very near poverty.  Poverty is not an issue of “them,” it’s an issue of “us.” (Rank)
  • We view poverty through the lens of Individual blame vs social and economic injustice—for example, that it’s wrong that children are going hungry in the US.  Childhood poverty is costing us $1 trillion/year through higher medical care, incarceration, and lower productivity.
  • Europeans use a relative measure of poverty rather than an absolute line, such as a percent of median income. If the US used half of the median income as the definition of poverty, our poverty level in 2020 would go from 11.4% to 16-17% of the population.
  • Other countries also define poverty to include things like social exclusion or disenfranchisement rather than just income, using concepts like lack of freedom.
  • Several online calculators and resources illustrate these issues:

Listen to the entire podcast here.