Economic Insecurity Is Coming

For nearly 80 percent of us, according to a new book on income distribution in America.

Photo credit:, CC BY 2.0.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post attempted to predict our income (and our age) via the apps we use.

Now the Washington Post has a new—and much less fun—interactive challenge: using our demographic data to predict whether we will “be plunged into poverty” in the near future.

There’s so much that’s wrong with this, beginning with the assumption that the person reading the article isn’t already living in a low-income household. (The most recent Census data puts Americans living in poverty at 46.7 million, or 14.8 percent of the population, and that only counts people below the federal poverty level, not low-income households that aren’t technically “poor.”) Let’s just look at these two opening paragraphs:

The odds of striking it rich by playing the Powerball are 1 in 292 million — worse than the odds of being struck by lightning — yet that doesn’t stop us from daydreaming about being flooded with wealth and sailing off to Bali.
The opposite, however, doesn’t appear to be true: Most of us spend relatively little time imagining what it would be like to be plunged into poverty, even though the odds of that happening are far, far greater.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time thinking about if and when I’m going to lose my primary sources of income. I spend almost no time imagining a situation in which I am wealthy. I don’t see that as a possibility.

But let’s move on and examine the Poverty Risk Calculator:

Sociologists Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University and Mark Rank of Washington University have calculated how likely you are to become poor based solely on your age, education, race and marital status. The calculator predicts probabilities for five, 10 and 15 years in the future.

I tried the calculator, and learned that I had a 17.0 percent chance of bec0ming poor in the next five years, a 21.3 percent chance within the next ten years, and a 26.2 chance within the next fifteen.

If I changed just one demographic point—from “white” to “non-white”—the risks move to 34.9 percent within five years, 39.6 percent within ten, and 46.9 within fifteen.

So what’s this calculator all about, and how does it define poverty? (I’m very curious if we’re talking “poor” or “broke” here, for example.) The calculator is an interactive component of Hirschl, Rank, and Kirk Foster’s book Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes, and here’s a relevant paragraph from the first chapter:

If one divides the income distribution of the United States into fifths, the only group that has increased its overall piece of the total income pie over the past 40 years has been the top 20 percent of the income distribution. Those in the bottom 80 percent of the distribution have actually seen their overall piece of the pie shrink.

The book promotional copy explains that Chasing the American Dream examines a number of income-related questions, including: “How is it that nearly 80 percent of us will experience significant economic insecurity at some point between ages 25 and 60?”

Okay. So it’s “broke” not “poor,” although significant economic insecurity isn’t something to take lightly just because it isn’t systemic poverty. (The Washington Post notes that the book’s definition of poverty includes incomes “up to 50 percent above the federal poverty level.”) I also feel like we can answer these questions even before reading the book, because so many of us have experienced them: job loss, rent increases, healthcare costs, debt, and so on.

The Washington Post tries to put a positive spin on the data:

The upside is that though the risk of poverty may be higher than you think, most Americans also leave poverty relatively quickly. Hirschl said poverty generally lasts one to three years; only a minority of the population remain in poverty for an extended period of time.

I really, really dislike the use of the word poverty here. Use “low-income,” use “economic insecurity,” use “loss of assets.” Still, the point has been made. Even if we’re doing okay now, economic insecurity—like winter—is coming, and it’s coming for a lot of us.

Do you worry, as often as I do, about the next time it will come for you?

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