The holidays are a time we focus on those in need and heap scorn on the Scrooges and Mr. Potters who don’t. But how well do we understand poverty otherwise—such as who’s poor, where they live, and the help that is or isn’t available? Are we operating, in some cases, from old or faulty assumptions? U. of I. sociology professor Brian Dill teaches an introductory course on poverty, in both classroom and online versions, and spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What do you find to be the biggest misconceptions about who is poor?
I hear three misunderstandings from my students. First, they overestimate the number of people around the world in extreme poverty. They often assume that more than one-third of humanity is living below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. While this was the case in 1990, it has declined rapidly over the past three decades to just under 10 percent.
This is still unacceptably high. But it is important to understand that efforts to alleviate poverty are having an impact. Much of the progress can be attributed to the mobilization behind eight Millennium Development Goals that were the focus of the global community from 2000-15. This effort helped to cut the extreme poverty rate in half, increase the number of children attending schools, reduce infant and maternal mortality, and improve access to clean water.
The second misconception is about where the American poor are located. Poverty in the U.S. has long been associated with large urban centers such as Chicago’s South Side or rural communities such as Appalachia, where it historically has been most concentrated. While poverty rates continue to be higher than average in those places, it’s the suburbs that have, over the past two decades, become home to the largest number of poor residents.
A third misconception concerns poverty and work. Students often assume that, almost by definition, the poor are unemployed. It’s correct that a majority of those below the poverty level do not work. But this includes children, the elderly and the disabled poor. And about 7 million of our fellow citizens—5 percent of the active labor force—can be classified as the “working poor.”
How do assumptions about welfare in the U.S. meet with the reality? What help is actually available, and for whom?
Recent polls show that the American public is generally sympathetic to the poor and supportive of greater government efforts to fight poverty. Most think that the poor are hard working and their circumstances are due more to forces beyond their control, rather than a lack of effort. Views shift, however, when survey questions refer to “welfare” rather than “poverty.” A majority believe the government spends too little on the poor, but half say it’s spending too much on welfare.