A surprising number of Americans cycle in and out of poverty. Columbia researchers have embarked on an ambitious study to find out why.by Douglas Quenqua Published Summer 2014
In the summer of 2010, everything was looking up for Jessica Lopez.
A thirty-year-old high-school dropout who had been working for years at a Popeyes restaurant, she landed a job as a teacher’s assistant at PS 287 in downtown Brooklyn. “It was always my dream to be a teacher,” she says. “I was so excited.”
Around the same time, Lopez and her four-year-old son, Nolan, moved into an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was the first home they had called their own. They needed no moving van: they had previously lived for six months in a homeless shelter, after unexpectedly getting kicked out of a room in a friend’s apartment. “We moved into our new place on Nolan’s fourth birthday,” Lopez says, sounding happy at the memory.
Then everything fell apart. In November, Nolan began having tantrums so violent he had to be hospitalized. Doctors said he had a combination of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and mixed receptive-expressive language disorder. Lopez, with no help from Nolan’s imprisoned father, was forced to quit her job to care for her son.
Today, Lopez gets by on a combination of cash assistance ($138 a month), food stamps ($210 a month), Medicaid (about $300 a month for Nolan’s medication), and Supplemental Security Income ($740 a month). She is still unable to work, because Nolan often can’t go to school or must be retrieved early.
“When I get that call — ‘He won’t get on the bus’ or ‘Nolan took off his clothes’ — I have to get over there as fast as I can,” Lopez says. “So I’m not working. I worry about money every day. It’s that kind of life.”
That kind of life — erratic employment, health problems, lifting oneself out of poverty only to sink back in again — is familiar to a surprising number of Americans. Whereas some fifty million people in the United States, or about one in seven, are now living below the official poverty line — which, for a single parent of one child, means earning less than about $16,000 a year — tens of millions more have either recently escaped poverty or will soon fall into its grasp. In fact, one study indicates that more than half of all adults in this country between the ages of twenty-five and seventy-five have spent at least one year in poverty.
“One of the biggest myths about poverty in the United States is that a relatively small segment of the population is poor, and that this represents a more or less permanent underclass,” says Irwin Garfinkel, the Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems at the Columbia School of Social Work. “But poverty is quite dynamic. Lots of people move in and out of poverty over the course of their lives. And it doesn’t take much for people at the edge to lose their footing: a reduction in work hours, an inability to find affordable day care, a family breakup, or an illness — any of these things can be disastrous.”
Garfinkel knows what he’s talking about. For the past eighteen months, he has been overseeing one of the most richly detailed studies of poverty ever undertaken in the United States. He and several colleagues at the School of Social Work, including professors Julien Teitler and Jane Waldfogel, and researchers Kathryn Neckerman and Christopher Wimer, have teamed up with the Robin Hood Foundation, the largest antipoverty organization in New York City, to conduct a meticulous long-term survey of 2,300 New York households across all income levels. By following people like Jessica Lopez for at least two years, the researchers hope to create a much more intimate and precise portrait of economic distress than has ever been conducted in any US city. They call the project the Poverty Tracker.
“We want to understand how people’s lives evolve,” says Michael Weinstein, the chief program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, which is funding the Columbia research. “If someone is out of work, we want to know: Did they seek job training? If so, did they learn a skill? Were they able to translate that skill into a job? Were they able to keep that job? If not, why?”
“One of the biggest myths about poverty in the United States is that a relatively small segment of the population is poor, and that this represents a more or less permanent underclass.” — Irwin Garfinkel
One goal of the Columbia researchers is to help government agencies and private organizations determine how best to allocate money for assistance programs in New York City. The most comprehensive information about the needs of New Yorkers — and of residents of any US city, for that matter — now comes from the American Community Survey, an extension of the US Census that polls a small percentage of the population every year about their employment, income, housing, expenses, dependents, health insurance, and public benefits. Federal agencies, as well as state and local governments across the country, use the results to make decisions about everything from school-lunch programs to housing subsidies. The survey’s shortcoming, say the Columbia researchers, is that it provides a mere snapshot of its respondents’ lives at a single point in time.
“A snapshot is fine for determining how much money a city should set aside for emergency food aid or oil-heating subsidies over the winter,” says Garfinkel. “But it’s not going to tell you what services are helping people lift themselves out of poverty, or preventing them from falling into poverty in the first place. That’s the level of detail we’re after.”