89: Pathway of Hope: The state of poverty today and what it means for families with Dr. Elaine Waxman

Last week, we kicked off this season focusing in on The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope—a national initiative to provide individualized services to families with children, addressing their immediate material needs AND providing long-term engagement to stop the cycle of poverty.

It was an introduction to the initiative that brings up a whole slew of fundamental questions:

How do we approach the longstanding, sometimes ideologically divided issue of poverty? 

How do we inform consequential choices about the well-being of people in the U.S.?

Who helps to shape decisions and offer solutions for economic and social policy? 

And is poverty even a solvable issue? 

Dr. Elaine Waxman says yes. 

She is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization that believes decisions shaped by facts, rather than ideology, have the power to improve public policy and practice, strengthen communities, and transform people’s lives for the better.

Before joining the Urban Institute, Dr. Waxman was vice president of research and nutrition at Feeding America. Her expertise includes food insecurity, nutrition and the food assistance safety net and the social determinants of health disparities.

She is a member of the Feeding America Technical Advisory Group, an adviser to the national food and agricultural policy for Agree, an advisory board member of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois, and a member of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Food Insecurity and Health Care Expenditures. Plus, she is a lecturer at the University of Chicago, where she earned her PhD. 

Dr. Waxman is on the show today to help us better understand the state of poverty in the U.S., what this means for families, and the strategies that point to a way out. 

Show highlights include:

  • More about Dr. Waxman’s story and how she came to the Urban Institute.
  • What her work entails now.
  • The state of poverty in the U.S. today.
  • The causes of poverty and the impact of the pandemic.
  • What this means in reality for families experiencing poverty.
  • How living in poverty affects a person’s wellbeing, especially that of a child.
  • Why Dr. Waxman believes poverty is a solvable issue. 
  • Promising strategies she’s seen to help get us there.
  • The ideal role of nonprofits and other partners in helping families find a way out of poverty.
  • A tangible way you can get involved in the issue today. 

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Dr. Waxman. Welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast today. Thank you for being here. 

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Thank you for having me.

Christin Thieme: As we start out here, an you tell us a little bit about your own story and how you came to the Urban Institute?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Sure. So I joined the Urban Institute about six years ago. And, prior to that, I was the vice president of research and nutrition at Feeding America, which is the brella organization for food banks around the country. At Urban, I brought that interest in food insecurity and nutrition, but have also expanded that to broader issues affecting the safety net and low-income communities more broadly.

Christin Thieme: So what does your work entail today then?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: So I’m working on a variety of projects, focused around food insecurity, the federal nutrition programs like SNAP and school meals and the ways in which those can buffer families from material hardship. During the pandemic, we’ve been running a series of nationally representative surveys to understand how families have been affected and how they are coping with hardship. So, much of the last year has been just trying to understand the evolving situation on the ground. Who’s affected, what programs seem to be having the most positive impact in assisting families.

Christin Thieme: What have you seen from that? What is having the most positive impact?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Well, I should preface anything that we talk about here in saying, obviously, things have shifted so quickly over the last year and will continue to do so. But I think we do know some things on a preliminary basis. First of all, without the pandemic relief programs, both the ones that we already have in place like SNAP and unemployment compensation, as well as those that were created specifically for this period of time, like the recovery rebates, the additional amounts to unemployment, that we would have been in a very tough place. I think those programs basically helped buffer poverty to probably stay around where we would have expected it prior to the pandemic. But I think in the near term, we’re actually going to see a decline in poverty based on some of these programs, particularly the recovery rebates are going to have a significant impact, but I want to be sure that we understand that those are temporary and while they’re really important right now, at this point we don’t expect them to continue. So I think the future picture of what poverty is going to look like say in 2022 is an open question.

Christin Thieme: So you are an expert in this area, but for somebody who maybe isn’t as well versed, can you help explain what is the state of poverty in the U.S. today?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Sure. So generally speaking, we observe, or we think we will observe this year, a poverty rate of about 9%, which is below where we would have been probably in the neighborhood of 13 to 14%. I’m using what we call supplemental poverty measures and that takes into account the impact of things like SNAP and cash payments, as opposed to the official poverty level, which just looks at the impact of cash. So anyway, a significant improvement based on those programs, nevertheless, we have understood for some time and the story does not change that it’s quite unequal across communities. Communities of color and indigenous communities experience much higher rates of poverty and lack of economic mobility. And we will continue to see that. Unfortunately, that’s partly, you know, a long legacy,  and historic racism and continued structural racism so that there are simply not the same opportunities and jobs, not the same group, wage-earning opportunities. And those are a long-haul set of problems that we need to solve.

Christin Thieme: So access to opportunity might be one of the causes of poverty. What would you say are the others?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: So there are, you know, a number of things that can contribute to poverty. For some people that may be health-related, it might be a disability, which both increases your expenses and limits your ability to earn income. For other families, it may be living in a persistent poverty area where there are very few jobs, but for lots of folks that simply make inadequate wages, it’s there may not be enough jobs to go around. There may be a mismatch between what people’s skills are and what jobs are available, and the jobs that are available simply don’t pay enough for people to cover their basic expenses, let alone,  build some assets so that they’re better able to weather hard times.

Christin Thieme: So we talk about poverty as this big issue, and we hear the term below the poverty line. What does it actually mean for a family who would be considered in that category, living below the poverty line? What does that actually look like?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Well, it’s an interesting thing when we talk about poverty in the U.S., because the way we measure it is pretty antiquated and that’s a widely held belief by people of all different ideologies, but we’ve used the same approach for many years. And so I think the main thing we need to understand is that being below the poverty level is a pretty significant level of deprivation. And so just because you’re a little above the poverty level, doesn’t mean you’re doing very well. It’s just a marker that we’ve used for some time. We do have a sort of an established set of income levels. So for example, if you wanted to think about the poverty level for a family of three, it would be in 2021, about $22,000. I’m sure that folks who are listening understand that that’s a very limited income in many areas but particularly in high-cost areas.

Christin Thieme: How does living in poverty affect somebody’s wellbeing? I mean, for maybe for adults and for a child, what does that affect?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Yeah, I really appreciate that question because the impact of poverty is not simply economic. We know that individuals who live in poverty or near poverty have much more significant health issues, more likely to develop chronic health conditions, and obviously less likely to be able to cope with them. And the added expenses that come with poor health, you know, children who grow up in poverty are not positioned to do as well in school or to have the opportunities that would allow them to access mobility for the future. So, the good news side of that story is that we have lots of research evidence that tells us that if we can intervene early in a child’s life and provide adequate resources it makes a big difference. So we have the ability to tell a different story, but unfortunately, we don’t have a consistent safety net across the country. What resources are available to you vary a lot by which state you live in, what community you live in. And so we’re a long way from being able to do what we know we can.

Christin Thieme: I guess that leads to: Is poverty a solvable issue?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Absolutely. I mean, poverty is ultimately, you know, an economic issue. It’s not a cultural issue. Sometimes people talk about cultural poverty as if there are certain characteristics of people who make them more likely to be poor based on their individual attitudes. That’s not the case. It’s basically about resources. And we have lots of resources in the United States. What we don’t have is an equitable distribution of those resources. We don’t have a reckoning of the way that historical inequities have affected communities of color, and we have not collectively come to the political will to solve it. So that’s a big hurdle, you know, but I think, it’s in everybody’s collective interest to put poverty at the front of the agenda because communities as a whole suffer when parts of those communities aren’t doing well. Healthcare expenses for everybody go up, the opportunity to have new businesses and new innovations are limited when we’re not making full use of the talents and skills of everyone around us. So, it really is a collective good having economic prosperity. But we just have to decide that that’s something that we’re going to prioritize and push through. And unfortunately, people often say, well, we’ve done all of these things and we’ve never been able to solve property. And, and the truth of the matter is, is we’ve nipped around at the edges and we’ve never really dealt with it in a serious way. 

Christin Thieme: What are some of the strategies that you feel are promising to help us get there?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Well, you know, I think the bottom line is for many people improving economic opportunity, and that means jobs with better wages and better benefits. If the private sector isn’t able to support the level of wages and benefits needed, then that means we need government assistance, whether that’s in the form of subsidized jobs that help raise wages for some people who would otherwise not be able to earn what they need to cover their basic needs, or it might mean, you know, some people are talking about a regular level of payment that would go to folks every month. That would be a supplement income. We’re going to see a little bit of that experiment this year with the beginning of the new child tax credit, which will actually be paid as a monthly stipend. And, you know, estimates suggest that that’s going to make a significant dent in poverty—that just in 2021, those six months of payments that start in July could drop poverty by a whole percentage point across the U.S.

So part of it is about just cash, right? It’s figuring out how to help people earn more, figuring out how to supplement resources, people who may not be in the position to command more. And part of it is about addressing other long-term barriers, like the lack of high-quality education in every community, the persistent material hardship that goes with food insecurity and housing insecurity and ultimately dealing with the ways that structural racism affects the prospects for black and brown communities. So it’s not an easy solution. It’s a multifaceted one, but it’s also in some ways pretty,  obvious some of the things that we need to do. I think 2021 has given us an opportunity to really innovate and see how we can come out in a better place.

Christin Thieme: So there’s plenty of work to be done. And, having studied this issue for so long, what would you say is the ideal role of a nonprofit and other partners in helping families find a way out of poverty?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Yeah, that’s a great question. So obviously nonprofits have always played a critical role in just buffering that immediate need and that immediate hardship and the importance of that can’t be understated. You know, people can’t do things like look for a job, take care of their children, look after their own health, if they’re literally struggling to put food on the table or maintain housing. So you know, that acute response is important. I think that many nonprofits, of course, in recent years have come to realize that that’s not enough, and that they need to work in partnership to tackle these sort of larger root issues. That means moving just from a crisis response to having a role in public policy advocacy, to change government policies that need to be addressed. It means partnering with businesses to find opportunities for folks, you know, ideally to partner with high road employers who are also interested in providing the most supportive workplaces. It also means taking a hard look at the ways that the nonprofit sector has or has not responded to communities of color and being willing to change practices and partnerships to do better.

Christin Thieme: What’s something about poverty that maybe the average person doesn’t know that you wish everybody did know.

Dr. Elaine Waxman: So I think, one of the narratives we have in the United States about poverty is that it’s about individual deficits, individual responsibility. Obviously, everyone has a responsibility to  contribute to both their own wellbeing and the community to the fullest extent they can, but the way poverty works in the U.S. it’s really not about individual shortcomings. It’s very much about the structures of low-wage jobs and limitations on access to wealth-building, say for communities of color, things that are shaped by policies and practices that are far beyond the control of any one individual. And so, as long as we continue to make the conversation about individuals, we’re not going to make headway, but if we can begin to just re-imagine the way we want to function as a community, as a society, I think people will see that we have much more ability to make progress, and feel much more optimistic about where we can go.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. So we talk about a lot of big issues on the show, but we always like to end with what is one tangible way, something that somebody listening who wants to get more involved in this issue, could do today to help the cause? What would you say in this case? What would be your one piece of advice, your one tangible way to get involved?

Dr. Elaine Waxman: I think that’s a great question. And I will say that there are lots of onramps right into activism, but I think speaking up in your community for adequate wages and strategies for making sure that everybody has access to healthcare and food is something that everybody can do from whatever your vantage point is. Those are sort of things that touch all of us, right. We can all relate to sort of the struggle to make ends meet particularly. If you have, if you’re taking care of children or you taking care of family members with illness, you know, there’s often an unexpected expense that puts you back just when you think you’re digging out. And so I think speaking up for not just providing bare-minimum wages in our local economies, but really sufficient wages to support households is number one on my list.

Christin Thieme: Dr. Waxman, thank you so much for sharing with us today. Thank you for the work that you’re doing, and we really appreciate your time.

Dr. Elaine Waxman: Well, and back to you, and thank you so much to the folks in the nonprofit sector who do this hard work day in and day out.

Additional resources:

  • Explore the research of the Urban Institute
  • You’ve probably seen the red kettles and thrift stores, and while we’re rightfully well known for both…The Salvation Army is so much more than red kettles and thrift stores. So who are we? What do we do? Where? Right this way for Salvation Army 101.
  • Did you know The Salvation Army served 31 million Americans last year fighting hunger, homelessness, substance abuse and more—all in a Fight for Good? Where can you help? Take our quiz to find your cause and learn how you can join in today. 

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

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