'Ignore the Poor at Your Own Peril': Human Ecology Faculty Lend Their Expertise to Universitywide Initiative Examining Poverty Dynamics

Article excerpt

It was January of 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty to address the fact that 19 percent of the citizens in the world's richest country were living' below the poverty line. Forty-five years later 20 percent still do so. And today the poor are even further behind when comparing their income to that of the "average" American.

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"We had a war on poverty and poverty won," said Daniel Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor in Cornell's College of Human Ecology and director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.

Look around the world and the picture is similar, according to Christopher B. Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In other high-income countries, the numbers of poor people are large and have remained constantly so over the past generation. In the developing world, the number of Africans living on less than $1.00 a day has doubled in that time. There are more poor people in Latin America than a generation ago, and even the rapidly growing economies of south Asia have left hundreds of millions in extreme poverty. Only in east and southeast Asia have the numbers of people suffering abject poverty fallen in the past generation.

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Barrett is directing the Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility Project, a three-year campuswide initiative in Cornell's Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) that is investigating "poverty traps" and how to transform ineffective programs aimed at releasing the poor from the bonds of ongoing deprivation. When Barrett began looking for individuals with the expertise and experience to join this effort and solidify Cornell's reputation as a preeminent place for research on poverty, he turned to faculty in the College of Human Ecology.

One of the first people he approached was nutrition professor Christine Olson.

"The idea of applying the best social science Cornell had to offer to this real-world problem fascinated me right from the start," said Olson, a nutritionist also trained in sociology who has spent 30 years addressing the dynamics of poverty in rural America--most recently the interrelationship between food insecurity and health and how those factors may constrain people from becoming upwardly mobile.

Another call was made to Jordan Matsudaira. Matsudaira arrived in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in the fall 2007 after completing a Robert Wood Johnson Post-doctoral Fellowship in Health Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley. He's a labor economist with special expertise in quantitative research design and causal inference. Much of his work focuses on urban poverty and such issues as how welfare programs might be designed and education systems transformed to help improve the lives of poor children.

"I immediately saw the possibility of theoretical advances in the way we think about poverty and how those advances could inform interventions on the ground" said Matsudaira who, as a new faculty member, also recognizes the value of this opportunity to exchange ideas with scholars and citizens across disciplinary and geographic perspectives.

Olson and Matsudaira agreed to join Barrett and Stephen L. Morgan, an associate professor in the sociology department, as core team members in framing the project proposal, which was ultimately chosen in a highly competitive selection process as the ISS theme project for 2008 to 2011.

Soon after two other Human Ecology college faculty were competitively selected as the project team members--Daniel Lichter from the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and David Sahn from the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

"There's never been as much interest in inequality in policy circles as there is now," said Lichter, a noted demographer who has studied issues of poverty and inequality for 25 years, "especially in the growing gap between the rich and poor. …