Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Poverty Lottery

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 winning.

Just what are your chances of falling into poverty? 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.

More than half of Americans experience poverty at some point during their prime working years, the authors discovered. The risk can be as high as 76 percent for some Americans and as low as 5 percent for others. But a common theme that emerged in the author’s research was that the risk of becoming poor is often higher than Americans of any demographic group realize.

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. Now probabilities aren't predictions. Their calculator doesn't ask about your income, your savings and debt and how well your 401(k) is performing -- or if you even have one. Certainly, those factors influence how well individuals can weather unexpected life events, such as illness or unemployment. But in the aggregate, Hirschl said, the four criteria used in the calculator are the strongest predictors of economic distress. Hirschl and Rank analyzed more than 40 years of income data for 5,000 households and interviewed dozens of Americans for their book, "Chasing the American Dream. Technically, the researchers are calculating the risk of being not just at poverty, but also near poverty, which they define as income that's up to 50 percent above the official poverty level. By that measure, more than half of Americans experience poverty at some point during their prime working years, the authors discovered.

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