You May Not Realize How Poverty Works

We've been having a ongoing conversation here on Rooflines marking the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty about what poverty and poverty statistics mean, myths and misconceptions about poverty.

To add to that conversation, I wanted share three things I've recently run across that reminded me how off conventional wisdom about poverty can be—and I don't mean just extreme poor-bashing conventional wisdom, but even much broader, more commonly voiced understandings of how it works and what the problems and incentives are. Here they are:

First, what do you think about poor unwed fathers? Is your first thought that becoming a father, even accidentally, is a joyous, life-affirming event for them and that they work hard against a system that sees them “as a paycheck not a coparent” to try to be involved in their children's lives? No?
Then you might want to check out the work of sociologist Kathryn Edin, as reported in Mother Jones recently, because that's what she found. Many people who will jump to defend single mothers still see a universal cloud of “deadbeat dads” as the problem. They should take another look.

Second, eviction: cause or effect of poverty? This Harvard magazine profile of Matthew Desmond's MacArthur Foundation–funded research into eviction paints a picture where evictions are often capricious and discriminatory, and where a history of eviction dogs lower income women, keeping them from getting ahead, much the way a history of incarceration hobbles their male counterparts. It is, he argues, as much a cause as an effect.

Third: True or False: We need more financial education because part of what keeps people poor is a lack of financial savvy and budgeting. I can't count how many times I've heard that argued, but it's not so simple says the U.S. Financial Diaries project. The NYU-led research follows a range of families, looks at their every financial transaction, and asks them why they made the choices they did. Not only are households much more financially savvy under trying circumstances than is usually assumed, it turns out budgeting can be ridiculously difficult if both your income and expenses are unpredictable—and income volatility is a huge problem these days. Unpredictable income is something we rarely talk about separately from income level, but recognizing it as its own challenge could change the way we think about many policies and programs, from financial products to income eligibility measures.

The thing that sticks out so clearly to me from all of these studies is how much they are grounded in the lived reality of low-income households: not abstract datasets, not telephone surveys, not extrapolations based on the “common sense” or armchair economic theories of people who haven't been there. This is research that gets to know people, gets their trust, observes what actually happens, and asks people “why?” Clearly, we could use more like this.

(Photo by Steve Rhodes CC BY)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Powerful posting, the push for measurements and data sometimes obscures the realities on the ground in our communities. The power of qualitative research is important in providing a powerful narrative to the statistics and measurements that far too often shape practices and policies. Miriam’s posting is a reminder that hearing the stories and being in the community are tools for change and action and a call to subvert the dominant paradigm that data rules.

  2. Thank you for this article. I find it frustrating when dealing with funders, case workers or academics who view all poor people as unable, poor decision makes, uneducated therefore slow, victims, etc. My experience has been that they are great problem solvers, survivalists, people persons and yes they can “play the system” but that is part and parcel of surviving without conventional resources. I met a case worker who was fired for helping a dealer use his talents to open a legitimate business. She moved on and he is a successful entrepreneur helping others. There is always more to the story and we need to listen.

  3. Regarding single fathers, I read Kathryn Edin’s books on fathers, “Doing the Best I Can” and on single mothers, “Promises I Can Keep” – both are fascinating and compulsively readable, and absolutely challenge the beliefs behind much of poverty policy. One of the things I took away: single parents aren’t poor because they are unmarried; they are unmarried because they are poor. It is ridiculous to me that so many of our researchers and policymakers still essentially blame poverty on weak moral fiber instead of spectacularly unlivable wages, and the outsourcing of the U.S. manufacturing industry – not to mention a huge vacuum where there should have been a massive overhaul of our educational and vocational training systems to help Americans restructure their skills as fast as the economy.


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