Academic journal article Social Work

The Likelihood of Poverty across the American Adult Life Span

Academic journal article Social Work

The Likelihood of Poverty across the American Adult Life Span

Article excerpt

One of the most significant and far-reaching issues in the social work profession has been the condition of poverty. Whether the discussion revolves around welfare use, racial inequalities, single-parent families, infant mortality, economic insecurity, or a host of other topics, poverty underlies each and every one of these subjects. Ultimately, it is one of the great challenges that the profession and society as a whole must face.

Yet how we confront this challenge depends in part on an accurate assessment of the magnitude of the problem. Until recently, the longitudinal dynamics of poverty in America were largely unknown. Point-in-time estimates gathered from cross-sectional surveys such as the decennial census were the sole source of information available to researchers. However, with the advent of several large national panel studies, considerable insight has been gained over the past 20 years.

Analyses of these data sets have revealed a number of important dimensions surrounding the longitudinal dynamics of poverty. Yet in spite of this growing body of knowledge, a pivotal question that remains unaddressed - the answer to which would significantly contribute to our research and policy understanding - is, What is the likelihood of an American's experiencing poverty at some point during his or her adult lifetime? This article represents the first attempt to answer this fundamental question.

Literature Review

With the advent of several national panel studies, including the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation, considerable light has been shed on understanding the longitudinal dynamics of poverty spells. These data sets have allowed researchers to observe and track the individual dynamics of poverty and income mobility. Several broad conclusions can be drawn from this body of work.

First, most spells of poverty are fairly brief. The typical pattern is that households are impoverished for several years and then manage to rise above the poverty line (Bane & Ellwood, 1986; Blank, 1997; Duncan et al., 1995; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996; Walker, 1994). They may stay there for a period of time, only to experience an additional fall into poverty at some point. Because their economic distance above the poverty threshold is often modest, a detrimental economic event such as the loss of a job or the breakup of a family can throw a family back below the poverty line.

In contrast, a much smaller number of households experience chronic poverty for years at a time. These are the cases that we generally think of when the term "underclass" is used (Wilson, 1987, 1996). Typically they have characteristics that put them at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis the labor market (for example, individuals with serious work disabilities, female-headed families with large numbers of children, racial minority groups living in innercity areas). As a result their prospects for getting out of poverty for any significant time are severely diminished (Duncan, 1984).

And of course some individuals and households fall between these two ends of the spectrum. As an example of these patterns, Blank (1997) relied on the PSID to calculate the occurrence of poverty over a 13-year period. During the years from 1979 to 1991, she found that one-third of Americans experienced a spell of poverty. However, of those who fell below the poverty line, one-half were poor for three years or less, one-third were in poverty between four and nine years, and 14.6 percent fell below the poverty line for 10 of 13 years (only 4.5 percent of poor people fell below the poverty line for each of the 13 years).

Blank also found that the likelihood and duration of poverty varied sharply by race. One-quarter of white Americans experienced poverty at some point during the 13-year period compared with two-thirds of black Americans. …

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