In the U.S., there’s a well-developed infrastructure for counting the number of people in poverty, but less attention is paid to monitoring the changing conditions of poverty, how those conditions differ across places and “poverty types,” and how those in poverty respond to these differing conditions.
The National Poverty Study is founded on two premises: (a) that existing quantitative protocols for measuring poverty tell us relatively little about the day-to-day experience of poverty; and (b) that the U.S. runs a one-size-fits-all policy in large part because relatively little is known about the different types of poverty. We’ll review each of these two problems—and our proposed solution to them—in turn.
We should forewarn: The National Poverty Study is ambitious and unprecedented. We therefore spend some time introducing the rationale for carrying it out and its expected payoff for basic science and policy.
It’s Not Enough to Simply Count the Poor
The current poverty measurement infrastructure in the U.S. presumes that the main job is simply to count how many people are poor. With the introduction of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) in the U.S., we know much more about the number of people in poverty, which regions have high poverty rates, and which demographic and racial groups have high poverty rates. Although it’s obviously important to count the number of people who are poor, this approach falls short because it presumes that the SPM threshold correctly establishes where deprivation begins and ends, because it fails to identify the gradations of experience above or below that threshold, and because it fails to provide any information about the experiences of those in poverty as they attempt to forge their lives in the context of deprivation.
What we lack, then, is an infrastructure for systematically examining how the poor live and how they live their lives in the context of stress, disruption, and deprivation. The National Poverty Study, which is built around the Making Ends Meet protocol (as devised by Kathy Edin and Laura Lein), will provide a new infrastructure for regularly delivering qualitative interview evidence. The interviews are based on modules that elicit (a) a short life history and defining life-course events; (b) the features and rhythm of the subjects’ everyday lives; (c) the availability and closeness of friends and relatives; (d) a detailed breakdown of income from all sources and expenses across detailed categories; (e) the types of formal, informal, and illegal jobs that have been and are typically held; (f) the extent of economic hardship (e.g., difficulties in paying bills) and characteristic reactions to such hardship (e.g., payday loans, turning to friends); (g) the poverty standing of the subjects; and (h) the mental health, anxiety, and stress experienced by the subjects. The study will draw representative samples from three poverty populations (deep poverty, middle poverty, near poverty) along with one middle-class comparison group. Because the interview is long and typically intense, our pretest interviewers have come away with a rich and deep portrait of the subjects and their everyday lives.
The National Poverty Study will become a key resource for basic and policy research on poverty. The following are the most obvious payoffs:
Validity of poverty measurement: The U.S. has mobilized much scientific talent and considerable resources to roll out the new Supplemental Poverty Measure. But the threshold itself is based on little more than convention and hunch. The National Poverty Study will allow us to validate this quantitative monitoring system by examining how low-income people are actually living and whether the SPM and other measurements (e.g., the Official Poverty Measurement) are representing who is and is not experiencing deprivation.
Gradations of poverty: In recent research, it has been documented that extreme poverty in the United States (i.e., less than $2 per person per day) is surprisingly common, a finding that calls on us to better understand the circumstances of this population. But there’s very little evidence on other types of qualitative differences between various poverty populations. Do the “near poor” indeed face qualitatively different circumstances than the working class or middle class? Are they in the end just like the poor? Are deep poverty and extreme poverty pretty much the same? Do the extreme-poor, middle-poor, and near-poor populations have different lives, experiences, and strategies for making ends meet? Do existing poverty policies address their needs equally well? We simply don’t know.
Hidden poverty populations: Within the qualitative tradition, the tendency has been to focus on particular poverty subpopulations, especially young men, young women with children, and the homeless. By insisting on systematic representative sampling, the National Poverty Study will allow us to overcome this patchwork approach and provide new evidence on subpopulations that remain largely hidden, including childless women, middle-aged adults, the elderly, and doubled-up families.
Retesting key conclusions: Even within commonly studied populations, it is uncommon for qualitative studies to rely on random samples, meaning that systematic biases in the sampling method may affect characterizations of those populations. Likewise, an explicit middle-class comparison group is not always used, a design that lends itself to mistaking certain features of the poverty experience as more idiosyncratic than they truly are. We need an infrastructure that allows us to ensure that the inferences made from classic and highly influential qualitative studies can stand up to rigorous test based on systematic samples.
Early warning system: The National Poverty Study will provide a new infrastructure for undertaking real-time assessments of how the poverty population is dealing with national emergencies (e.g., recessions) and sweeping new policy (e.g., health care reform, school reform). In the last recession, the U.S. needed to make real-time assessments about unemployment insurance, food stamps, disability insurance, and other key programs, but there was little research capacity to make those assessments.
Develop new theories and interventions: The National Poverty Study infrastructure, once in place, will allow new interventions to be developed from the bottom-up on the basis of qualitative evidence on (a) the everyday lives of the deep poor, moderately poor, and near-poor, (b) how they react to immediate or long-term need, and (c) how they engage with the informal (or formal) safety net.
The simple conclusion: During the next several decades, the U.S. will be making major policy decisions on the safety net and labor market, decisions that will have to be reached without adequate evidence unless we develop an infrastructure for understanding how the poor live, make decisions, and react to policy changes.
If the first main problem with U.S. poverty measurement is that it privileges counting over understanding, the second main problem is that it operates under a monolithic, uniform conception of what poverty is. With few exceptions, poverty policy is based on a single stylized image of poverty (i.e., urban concentrated poverty), a tendency that will be more easily resisted when the National Poverty Study is available.
The National Poverty Study will take on this problem very directly. At its inception, it will cover 5,000 households across 100 sites in the U.S. These sites cover such poverty types as deindustrializing poverty, border poverty, suburban poverty, ethnically concentrated poverty, classic Black-White poverty, depopulating poverty, high-density poverty, high-housing-cost poverty, rural deindustrialized poverty, supply-side poverty, new immigrant poverty, rural White poverty, rural Black poverty, reservation poverty, and spatially isolated poverty.
The results coming out of this design will allow the U.S. to test and assess existing and proposed policy against each poverty type. If our policy is sometimes anemic, it’s in part because our image of poverty is anemic: We can better develop policies that are matched to real need and tailored to real diversity once we better understand that real need and real diversity.
It bears noting that local governments and agencies have also been very keen to participate in the National Poverty Study because they too find themselves obliged to run poverty policy in the blind. By virtue of the National Poverty Study, a wealth of evidence about poverty will become available at each site, making data-informed policy possible at the local level for the first time. This new resource additionally will provide rich opportunities for research and training among graduate students and other scholars.
Why We Should Do It
This initiative has required five years of planning and pretesting because it develops an altogether new infrastructure for monitoring poverty. It innovates by (a) developing a common protocol that allows for cross-site and over-time comparisons, (b) relying on representative samples that allow us to generalize to a known population, (c) including a full constellation of poverty populations (i.e., the deep poor, the middle poor, the near poor) as well as a middle-class comparison group, and (d) making the anonymized National Poverty Study interview transcripts and community metadata available to all scholars (via a secure data center). If the qualitative form has sometimes developed in a way that has made replication difficult, it is because of its own developmental path rather than any intrinsic inconsistency with scientific methods.
It is no small decision to build a new infrastructure for monitoring poverty. Is it worth it? Because the social and economic costs of poverty are so high, and because these costs loom large as the U.S. attempts to compete against countries that pay a lower “poverty tax,” there is ample incentive to find ways to reduce poverty. The economic success of the U.S. rests in no small part on whether the burgeoning low-income population is more successfully integrated into the economy.
The U.S. has been hampered in meeting this challenge because it doesn’t have a systematic infrastructure for monitoring how the poor get by. We are left with one-size-fits-all policy because there is no capacity to examine how poverty plays out within reservations, border communities, suburban areas, deindustrializing cities, new immigrant communities, and many other settings. The National Poverty Study solves this problem by setting up 100 poverty observatories that will allow us to develop and assess poverty policy on the basis of systematic evidence.