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Poorly Understood

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Poorly Understood

What America Gets Wrong About Poverty

Oxford UP,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

American poverty is stereotyped and misunderstood – and that makes addressing it all the more difficult.

Editorial Rating



  • Eye Opening
  • Visionary
  • Background


Americans tend to make broad assumptions about those who live in poverty: The stereotypical poor person lives in a big city, relies on social assistance, doesn’t have much interest in working and is wholly responsible for his or her circumstances. In reality, write professors Mark Rank, Heather Bullock and Lawrence Eppard, hardworking Americans of all stripes are more vulnerable to impoverishment than they think. This thought-provoking book both corrects misconceptions about the poor in the United States and provides policy prescriptions that can help society address poverty in more productive, fact-based ways.


People misjudge the poor and those who are at risk of falling into poverty.

The concept of poverty has several definitions and measures, but it typically refers to a family or an individual who doesn’t earn enough money to secure the goods and services required to live anything resembling a normal life. In 2019, the US Census Bureau set the poverty line at $13,011 in yearly earnings for individuals and at $26,172 for a household with four people. These numbers change over time to account for inflation. A different way of looking at the concept is “relative measure poverty,” which is based on median income: An individual is impoverished if that person’s income is less than half of what the median income is in that individual’s home country. This approach allows observers to compare poverty rates between nations.

People who embrace stereotypes about the poor tend to regard the group as irresponsible “others.” They don’t think that ordinary Americans in mainstream society experience poverty in their lives. Many believe that impoverished people are unemployed...

About the Authors

Mark Rank is a professor of social welfare at the Washington University in St. Louis. Heather Bullock is a social psychologist, professor of psychology and the director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise, and Participatory Governance at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Lawrence Eppard is a professor at Shippensburg University and the director of the Connors Forum for a Healthy Democracy.

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