Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have filled their debates and speeches this election year with references to America’s widespread economic insecurity and high rates of income inequality.
Now rather than just listen to politicians’ sound bites, Americans can judge for themselves how close they are to falling into poverty. For many, the answer will be they are perilously close.
A new poverty calculator developed by Cornell sociologist Thomas Hirschl and his collaborators lets users determine the likelihood they will fall below the federal poverty line over the next five, 10 and 15 years. Users enter their education level, marital status, age and whether they are white or non-white –four of the strongest predictors of economic instability – to predict their risk of poverty. The calculator also allows users to change any of the factors and see how it would affect their risk.
In earlier research Hirschl and his co-authors estimated that nearly 60 percent of Americans will spend at least one year in poverty between the ages of 20 and 75. The federal poverty line for a family of four is about $24,000.
“People are beginning to address these issues of economic insecurity, but we are not addressing them in ways that are concrete or sustainable,” said Hirschl, professor of development sociology. “The idea of the poverty calculator is we’re trying to make poverty risk more real, so that people can see where they stand and where people like them stand.”
So far 63,000 people have accessed the calculator, he added.
Hirschl developed the calculator with Mark Rank of Washington University and Kirk Foster of the University of South Carolina. The calculator is an Internet-based companion to their 2014 book, “Chasing the American Dream.”
In 2014, about one in every seven Americans – nearly 15 percent – were living below the poverty line, representing 46.7 million people. Among industrialized countries, the United States is at the high end of the poverty spectrum.
According to the calculator, someone who might be thought of as having a low risk of poverty – a person in her later 30s, white, unmarried and with an education beyond high school – has a 32 percent risk in the next five years. If just race changes from white to non-white, her risk increases to 49 percent. The most at risk are people who are non-white, unmarried, younger and have a high school education or less.
Hirschl and his colleagues based their findings on data they’ve culled from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has been tracking the economic status of a nationally representative group of Americans for the past 50 years.
Any number of life events can trigger a period of poverty, from losing a job to having a divorce or major illness. Often these are events that people cannot control and for which there is no effective safety net, Hirschl points out: “The safety net we do have is largely derived from 1935 legislation, the Social Security Act, which is outdated to say the least.
“We have a society where, if you fall on hard times, you feel that it’s your fault, that there’s something wrong with you. Among whites that’s especially true,” he said. But the fault also lies squarely within our society’s choice to leave poverty unaddressed, he said. “There’s very little understanding about social causality and the decisions that we’ve made as a country, particularly since 1970.”
The economic divide has been growing over time and will continue to spread, he said. With America becoming increasingly non-white and as higher education costs spiral, the United States is on the verge of becoming an economically polarized society in which the majority of citizens will experience poverty as a normal event, versus a minority who is economically secure.
Hirschl hopes the calculator will elevate the national discussion about poverty so that the country takes substantive action to address it.
“A lot of the political discussion doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but people are starting to come to terms with issues they haven’t thought about,” Hirschl said. “We need to go into the discussion with intellectual clarity. We hope the calculator will help establish a baseline to bring about that clarity.”