About the Project

Nearly 20 years ago, we (Mark Rank and Tom Hirschl) wanted to answer a basic question, “What is the likelihood that an American will experience poverty at some point during their lifetime?” You might wonder, why were we interested in such a question? The answer is that we viewed solving this question as important for moving our country forward in confronting the problem of poverty. Why might this be the case?

Perceptions of Poverty

Research has shown that if a social problem is thought to be affecting someone other than ourselves, we may feel empathy towards those on the receiving end of the problem, but it’s unlikely that we’ll do something about it. On the other hand, if a problem is perceived as affecting us directly, we’re much more likely to address it.

It turns out that the problem of poverty has historically been viewed in the United States as affecting someone else. In particular, poverty has often been viewed as a problem that affects minorities and the so-called underclass. As a result, the poor have been marginalized as falling outside the mainstream. In the public’s perception, the divide between “us” (the nonpoor) and “them” (the poor) has been wide.

Poverty is Widespread

Yet what if it was the case that for many people, the “us” and “them” are one and the same? In other words, although the percentage of the population who are poor at any one time is relatively small, what if across the course of a lifetime, many people experience poverty? This information could alter the perception of American poverty in at least two ways. First, such information breaks down the divide between the poor and the nonpoor. It suggests that for many of us, we are in fact both. Second, if a sizeable percentage of the population experiences poverty, it would imply that impoverishment is largely the result of failings at a systemic level. Rather than individual fault, widespread poverty could indicate problems at an economic and/or policy level.

What did we find? In our earlier work we discovered that between the ages of 20 and 75, nearly 60 percent of the American population would experience at least one year in poverty (below the official poverty line), and three quarters of Americans would experience at least one year of near poverty (below 150 percent of the official poverty line). Additional research further detailed the extent of economic turmoil across the life course. For example, in one study we found that half of all American children would spend at least one year of their childhood in a household that received food stamps. In another study, our results indicated that 40 percent of Americans would use a social safety net program in five or more years between the ages of 20 and 65.

Our recent book, Chasing the American Dream, looked further into the economic ups and downs of Americans. We found that while nearly everyone we interviewed for the book believed in the reality of the American Dream, they nevertheless had encountered considerable economic turmoil throughout their adulthood years in pursuit of that dream.

Putting Research Into Your Hands

All of this work indicated that poverty across a lifetime was widespread. Yet how could we make this information more personal and direct? This was the genesis for the idea behind the poverty risk calculator. We decided that we could take our approach and data, and transform it into a tool that anyone could use in order to estimate their risk of poverty. Furthermore, such a tool could show people how their risk might vary depending on changes in their demographics.

The result has been hundreds of hours of work and analyses going into the development of the poverty risk calculator. We hope that this tool has the ability to transform the discussion of poverty and inequality in America. It provides a personalization of poverty based upon scientific research that has not been possible in the past. As such, it opens up a new window into one of America’s most vexing problems.

Our website contains three different tools for you to engage with and use. The first is, of course, the poverty risk calculator. This allows you to apply our previous analytical work to estimate your future risk of poverty. It also allows you to make comparisons with others who may have a different set of characteristics. In this way you can begin to observe the extent of economic inequality in America.

In using the poverty risk calculator, it’s been designed so that it can be accessed on either a desktop/laptop or on a mobile device. This allows for greater flexibility in the manner in which you can use the calculator, either in a group setting or on your own. For example, you could begin a group discussion by asking participants to access the calculator on their personal mobile devices in order to estimate their risk of poverty. Alternatively, you might begin with a screen projection of the website to introduce a general discussion of American poverty. However you choose to approach the topic, we hope that you’ll find your discussions and explorations rewarding and paradigm changing.

The second tool on our website is the presence of a discussion guide. We have constructed the discussion guide into ten modules that are designed to delve deeper into various aspects of poverty and inequality. They can be used in the order in which they are listed, or they can be selected to suit the specific interests of your group. Feel free to add and expand upon any of the topics that are listed here, and to introduce additional topics to explore. The purpose is to stimulate a deeper understanding and insight into American poverty, and ultimately to create a platform for change. We have designed the discussion guide so that it may be used by a wide variety of groups and individuals.

The third element of our website is a research component. Here we include a variety of books, articles, and papers that we have written dealing with poverty and inequality in America. We encourage you to explore these issues further by examining some these research topics in greater detail.

Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, once said referring to the action of a lever, “Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” We hope that we are providing you with a lever on which to move a nation.

For additional information about the project, click here.


We would very much like to hear from you.
Please feel free to ask questions, share your experiences, suggest improvements, or contribute ideas that you’d like to discuss.

Email Address
[email protected]

Mailing Address
Mark Rank
School of Social Work
Campus Box 1196
Washington University
St. Louis, MO 63130

Website design by Michael Bierman with development by Randy Federighi and Nick Gehring, eleventy marketing group. Computational assistance by Steve Fazzari and Tom Hirschl.