One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All

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One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Mark Robert Rank. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 2004. 368 pp. ISBN 0-19-510168-5. $29.95 (cloth).

In One Nation, Underprivileged, Mark Rank addresses three specific questions. What are the fundamental causes of poverty in America? Why is poverty an issue of vital concern to all of us? And what can we do to eradicate poverty in this country? In answering these questions, Rank does not pull any punches. He argues that high rates of poverty in a rich nation are morally indefensible. Rank exhorts us to make a better case to the American public and to our leaders that it is in everyone's self-interest to eliminate poverty. And he argues passionately that the American people and its leaders must find the political will to act decisively on behalf of poor people.

In addressing the first question, Rank proposes a "new framework" for understanding the dynamics of American poverty. He claims that previous research has focused on individual deficiencies-bad choices, laziness, or immoral values of the poor. Instead, Rank argues that dominant causes of poverty are located in changing structural conditions (e.g., industrial restructuring or lack of good schools). Indeed, we should not blame poor people for their circumstances; society is mostly at fault. Although Rank argues this point persuasively with the usual arguments (e.g., a large segment of the poor population are children, the elderly, and the disabled), his is hardly a new framework but one to which most poverty scholars wholeheartedly embrace. And this structural view of poverty is not limited to liberal social scientists; the American public also acknowledges the clear role of structural conditions in perpetuating poverty. A recent NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll ( poverty/staticresults1.html) asked the following question of a nationally representative sample of adult respondents: In your opinion, which is the bigger cause of poverty today-that people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty or that circumstances beyond their control cause them to be poor? The responses were split roughly equally between "people not doing enough" (48%) and "circumstances" (45%).

The second third of One Nation, Underprivileged is easily the most interesting and innovative. Why should we care about poverty? Rank argues that it is in our individual and collective self-interest to address the question of poverty. Based on his empirical analysis, most of us will experience poverty during our lifetime and require help from others. Poverty also "costs" the American taxpayer in crime, welfare, and civic involvement. Furthermore, Rank believes that our Judeo-Christian value system requires a strong response to poverty. He quotes religious scripture from the Old Testament (e.g., "Happy are those who consider the poor" from Psalm 41) and the New ("What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?"). It is not obvious that such arguments hold sway with the American public. After all, John Kerry made similar moral arguments during the 2004 presidential campaign, but many voters (especially Evangelical Christians) responded to a much narrower moral agenda focused on gay marriage and abortion. …