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Questioning poverty assumptions

Questioning poverty assumptions

In a provocative and detailed report, “What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?”, Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones looks at the work of Kathryn Edin:

A sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, Edin is one of the nation’s preeminent poverty researchers. She has spent much of the past several decades studying some of the country’s most dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods. But unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

For three years Edin lived with her family in a studio apartment smack in between the two crime scenes we just passed and a few blocks from one of the city’s largest and most notorious public housing projects. Here she spent years doing intensive fieldwork for her latest book, coauthored with husband and Johns Hopkins colleague Tim Nelson, on low-income, unwed fathers. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City is a complicated portrait of a group of people all but ignored by statistics-driven social-science research—in large part because there’s little ready-made data about them.


Edin spent years getting to know low-income fathers, drawing them out to talk about their love lives and use of birth control, their reaction to pregnancies, and other intimate details. The result goes beyond the welfare-queen-style anecdotes that drive headlines and policy discussions, and instead gleans truth from ordinary experiences.

“Conventional wisdom is that the moms are the only ones who care about the kids and the dads want to flee responsibility,” Edin says. But she and Nelson found that the reviled “absentee father” isn’t quite so absent, nor does he want to be, and that whether he’s a deadbeat depends a lot on which of his kids you’re talking about.

Additionally, Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones shares “Ten poverty myths” from analysis by Dr. Laura Tach at Cornell University and census material. Here are two:

6. Go to college, get out of poverty. In 2012, about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000 a year, worked full time, and were heads of household had a bachelor’s degree.

7. We’re winning the war on poverty. The number of households with children living on less than $2 a day per person has grown 160 percent since 1996, to 1.65 million families in 2011.


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John B. Chilton

Part the “…” in the quote block above is “And there’s a more basic problem, well documented in research: When sociologists ask whether they have kids, some men don’t know—or lie.”

And then from the quote block, “the reviled “absentee father” isn’t quite so absent, nor does he want to be, and that whether he’s a deadbeat depends a lot on which of his kids you’re talking about.”

These are hard truths, not myths. Confronted with these truths our first task is to avoid falling for the answer that “the poor are responsible for their own poverty.” On the one hand, we do want to say people are accountable for their actions, but at the same time we want to ask what are the roots of that behavior. No doubt they are not responsible for the roots of the behavior. Society is responsible, and discovering what the causes are and addressing has no easy answer. It is just these sort of hard problems that society should be addressing.

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