Exploring the Ecology of Poverty: Faculty from across the College Discuss the Dimensions of Poverty from Their Varied Perspectives

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There are more than 37 million people in America living in poverty and many more who don't make enough money to cover basic expenses such as food and housing. The phenomenon has wide-ranging impacts on families, communities, the health care system, the national economy, and more.

Faculty from across the College of Human Ecology--including experts in economics, nutrition, psychology, and demographics--are examining the causes and effects of poverty for individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

This fall, Dean Alan Mathios called together a group of Human Ecology researchers to discuss the multidimensional aspects of poverty and what the college and our nation can do to alleviate the problem. John Lamson, the college's assistant dean for communications, moderated the discussion. The following are excerpts from their conversation:

Q: From your perspective, are problems with poverty today lessening or worsening?

Mathios: Real household income has risen dramatically over the past 40 or 50 years, though there was significantly slower growth in the last two decades. But it is also important to note that there are more women working full-time, so it takes a greater number of workers to generate that income.

Evans: One thing that is clear is that poor people are falling behind the average American, so while income is rising, things are looking worse and worse for the poor.

Olson: Right now, one in nine Americans participates in what used to be called the Food Stamp program. That is unbelievable. And 45 percent of infants born in the U.S. are born to mothers who participate in the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition program, which means their families are earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line. So this says to me that there are large numbers of Americans who are struggling to meet their needs for the basics in life, such as food.

Q: Our governments sponsor programs that alleviate the impact of poverty, and also tackle the issue with policies that are meant to address our social framework. What should the balance be, and is there a better way to address the problem?

Pillemer: There are some problems you can throw money at and cure, and poverty is one of them. Look at the impact that the Social Security program has had. We gave senior citizens more money and they stopped being poor.

Evans: That's exactly right. It's an example of a successful experiment. Prior to Social Security, the elderly were poor at the same rate that children under five were. Social Security, which critics called Socialism by the way, came into play and changed that dramatically. Now there are very few elderly people who live in poverty. People say you can't do anything about poverty. That's rubbish. We did do something about poverty in the elderly.

Mathios: Social Security was a relatively easy sell at the time. When it was passed, the average life span was only slightly greater than 65, and people enter the program at 65, so you were only really supporting them for just a few years. And the worker population was growing very rapidly, so the per-capita tax burden on the population at the time was low. That dynamic has changed dramatically as the ratio of elderly in the program to workers continues to increase. The question is what does supporting that system mean for taxation or debt accumulation? It's not going to be as easy to support the system because of changes in demography.

These are the kinds of issues studied at the Cornell Population Program, which the college is heavily involved in. It is such an important center because it deals with the relationship between health disparities, poverty alleviation, and the fundamental demographic changes that are going to throw all of this up in the air.

Pillemer: I am curious about the interaction between poverty and race.

Olson: People in the United States don't want to talk about race, and I think part of the reason we don't do much of anything about poverty is because many Americans think poverty equals minority. …

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