In September, the Assets and Education Initiative hosted the first of our speakers series events on Reimagining Poverty.
The events ask the question: Is there an American Dream for you? and raise issues related to the declining economic and social mobility in the United States today and the decreasing likelihood that the paths of opportunity that worked for past generations will work for young people in the future.
That’s part of the reason that I’ve been thinking so much about the American Dream: for my kids, for those disadvantaged, for our shared future.
The first event featured Mark Rank as the keynote. Dr. Rank was a professor of mine in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, when I was in graduate school, so it was a real treat to drive him from the airport, talking about policy and poverty and social change (and, I promise, a little about Sporting KC and my kids and some non-intellectual topics, too–I am a decent host!).
Mark has a new book coming out soon, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what shapes our fortunes, but his previous books about poverty and welfare were the main sources of his comments in September.
His research has exposed the extent to which poverty is mainstream–commonplace–even, and what that says about the predictable failures of our institutions and the degree to which poverty is an avoidable hazard of growing up in today’s America.
This, of course, is not to say that some don’t bear a greater risk of poverty than others; indeed, the story of poverty in the U.S. is largely one of entrenched patterns of relative disadvantage, and the narratives of the few who beat the odds don’t mean that injustice is not a problem.
And we must lay bare our collective myth of social mobility to harden the public outcry and give us a real chance at fundamental reforms.
But the reality of inequity is not at all at odds with Rank’s emphasis on widespread poverty risk; in fact, helping people to understand their own likelihood of poverty may help to galvanize greater support for the policy changes that will help those disadvantaged the most.
Because it’s failure of the same institutions that contribute to this economic insecurity: sporadic and fleeting, in the lives of some; inescapable for others.
Until we understand poverty as very clearly a result of policy structures, resulting from both intentional choices and less-than-benign neglect, we will continue to incorrectly locate culpability for poverty within individuals.
In so doing, we will deprive those sentenced to generational poverty of a meaningful chance to leave it. And we will make it likely that we, ourselves, confront the cruelty of poverty at some predictable point in our lives.
The overflow crowd in the room for Dr. Rank’s talk and the panel discussion that followed gives me some hope, though, that people are ready to reimagine our understanding of poverty. And that that might hold the key to reducing it.
You can watch the recording of the event, read media coverage, and check out upcoming events in the series here. We will issue a report tying the speakers series together this summer, and we hope that the conversations help to spark greater emphasis on fighting poverty and a different frame through which to view what poverty is doing to Americans, and to our vision of America.