Let’s have an honest conversation about poverty

Updated: 2013-09-09T02:57:56Z


The Kansas City Star

Churn on these statistics the next time you feel like wagging a finger at the troubles of another:

“Between the ages of 20 and 75, nearly 60 percent of Americans will experience at least one year below the poverty line and three quarters will experience a year either in or near poverty.”

The percentages strike at the usual school of thought — the poor don’t work hard enough, they fail to gain marketable skills and they make bad choices. Do this many Americans fall on hard times purely because of their own ineptitude and laziness? Or might there also be other factors at play, above and beyond individual choices, which no one is arguing don’t also play a role?

Ah, an honest conversation about poverty — is that possible?

It’s certainly needed. Most definitely within Kansas state government, in Congress and around many a boardroom and dinner table.

All of this is a snippet from a year’s worth of thoughtful discourse on the state of the American dream organized by the University of Kansas’ School of Social Welfare, “Is There An American Dream for You? How Institutional Failure Perpetuates Poverty.”

First up is a talk by Mark Rank of Washington University in the St. Louis area. The percentages of Americans who will experience some level of poverty are from his work.

“Shifting Our Understanding of American Poverty” is Rank’s topic in an address and panel discussion from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Union at KU in Lawrence.

Among Rank’s main points is that poverty affects everyone. We spend $500 billion a year on childhood poverty alone. He emphasizes that we can’t fully address, much less prevent, poverty until we understand it better. Rank argues that individual pathology explains who is more likely to be left out of latching onto good opportunities in America, “but they cannot explain why there’s a shortage of such opportunities in the first place.”

And yet, analysis and policies about food stamps and requirements for those receiving aid continue to stem from the attitude that people are poor due mainly to their own failings. It’s why America spends so much on anti-poverty programs, yet fails to address many of the underlying problems.

That sort of willful blindness leads to bad policy. It’s costly, it’s ineffective, and it’s led the discussion in America long enough.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to

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