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National Poverty Center Series on Poverty and Public Policy

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National Poverty Center Series on Poverty and Public Policy

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The Colors of Poverty

Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist

Given the increasing diversity of the nation—particularly with respect to its growing Hispanic and Asian populations—why does racial and ethnic difference so often lead to disadvantage? In The Colors of Poverty, a multidisciplinary group of experts provides a breakthrough analysis of the complex mechanisms that connect poverty and race.The Colors of Poverty reframes the debate over the causes of minority poverty by emphasizing the cumulative effects of disadvantage in perpetuating poverty across generations. The contributors consider a kaleidoscope of factors that contribute to widening racial gaps, including education, racial discrimination, social capital, immigration, and incarceration. Michèle Lamont and Mario Small grapple with the theoretical ambiguities of existing cultural explanations for poverty disparities.  They argue that culture and structure are not competing explanations for poverty, but rather collaborate to produce disparities. Looking at how attitudes and beliefs exacerbate racial stratification, social psychologist Heather Bullock links the rise of inequality in the United States to an increase in public tolerance for disparity. She suggests that the American ethos of rugged individualism and meritocracy erodes support for antipoverty programs and reinforces the belief that people are responsible for their own poverty. Sociologists Darren Wheelock and Christopher Uggen focus on the collateral consequences of incarceration in exacerbating racial disparities and are the first to propose a link between legislation that blocks former drug felons from obtaining federal aid for higher education and the black/white educational attainment gap. Joe Soss and Sanford Schram argue that the increasingly decentralized and discretionary nature of state welfare programs allows for different treatment of racial groups, even when such policies are touted as “race-neutral.” They find that states with more blacks and Hispanics on welfare rolls are consistently more likely to impose lifetime limits, caps on benefits for mothers with children, and stricter sanctions. The Colors of Poverty is a comprehensive and evocative introduction to the dynamics of race and inequality. The research in this landmark volume moves scholarship on inequality beyond a simple black-white paradigm, beyond the search for a single cause of poverty, and beyond the promise of one “magic bullet” solution.

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Insufficient Funds

Savings, Assets, Credit, and Banking Among Low-Income Households

One in four American adults doesn’t have a bank account. Low-income families lack access to many of the basic financial services middle-class families take for granted and are particularly susceptible to financial emergencies, unemployment, loss of a home, and uninsured medical problems. Insufficient Funds explores how institutional constraints and individual decisions combine to produce this striking disparity and recommends policies to help alleviate the problem. Mainstream financial services are both less available and more expensive for low-income households. High fees, minimum-balance policies, and the relative scarcity of banks in poor neighborhoods are key factors. Michael Barr reports the results of an in-depth study of financial behavior in 1,000 low- and moderate-income families in metropolitan Detroit. He finds that most poor households have bank accounts, but combine use of mainstream services with alternative options such as money orders, pawnshops, and payday lenders. Barr suggests that a tax credit for banks serving primarily disadvantaged customers could facilitate greater equality in the private financial sector. Drawing on evidence from behavioral economics, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show that low-income individuals exhibit many of the same patterns and weaknesses in financial decision making as middle-class individuals and could benefit from many of the same financial aids. They argue that savings programs that automatically enroll participants and require them to actively opt out in order to leave the program could drastically increase savings ability. Ronald Mann demonstrates that significant changes in the credit market over the past fifteen years have allowed companies to expand credit to a larger share of low-income families. Mann calls for regulations on credit card companies that would require greater disclosure of actual interest rates and fees. Raphael Bostic and Kwan Lee find that while home ownership has risen dramatically over the past twenty years, elevated risks for low-income families—such as foreclosure—may well outweigh the benefits of owning a home. The authors ultimately argue that if we want to demand financial responsibility from low-income households, we have an obligation to assure that these families have access to the banking, credit, and savings institutions that are readily available to higher-income families. Insufficient Funds highlights where and how access is blocked and shows how government policy and individual decisions could combine to eliminate many of these barriers in the future.

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Making Americans Healthier

Social and Economic Policy as Health Policy

The United States spends billions of dollars annually on social and economic policies aimed at improving the lives of its citizens, but the health consequences associated with these policies are rarely considered. In Making Americans Healthier, a group of multidisciplinary experts shows how social and economic policies seemingly unrelated to medical well-being have dramatic consequences for the health of the American people. Most previous research concerning problems with health and healthcare in the United States has focused narrowly on issues of medical care and insurance coverage, but Making Americans Healthier demonstrates the important health consequences that policymakers overlook in traditional cost-benefit evaluations of social policy. The contributors examine six critical policy areas: civil rights, education, income support, employment, welfare, and neighborhood and housing. Among the important findings in this book, David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney document the robust relationship between educational attainment and health, and estimate that the health benefits of education may exceed even the well-documented financial returns of education. Pamela Herd, James House, and Robert Schoeni discover notable health benefits associated with the Supplemental Security Income Program, which provides financial support for elderly and disabled Americans. George Kaplan, Nalini Ranjit, and Sarah Burgard document a large and unanticipated improvement in the health of African-American women following the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Making Americans Healthier presents ground-breaking evidence that the health impact of many social policies is substantial. The important findings in this book pave the way for promising new avenues for intervention and convincingly demonstrate that ultimately social and economic policy is health policy.

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Working and Poor

How Economic and Policy Changes Are Affecting Low-Wage Workers

Over the last three decades, large-scale economic developments, such as technological change, the decline in unionization, and changing skill requirements, have exacted their biggest toll on low-wage workers. These workers often possess few marketable skills and few resources with which to support themselves during periods of economic transition. In Working and Poor, a distinguished group of economists and policy experts, headlined by editors Rebecca Blank, Sheldon Danziger, and Robert Schoeni, examine how economic and policy changes over the last twenty-five years have affected the well-being of low-wage workers and their families. Working and Poor examines every facet of the economic well-being of less-skilled workers, from employment and earnings opportunities to consumption behavior and social assistance policies. Rebecca Blank and Heidi Schierholz document the different trends in work and wages among less-skilled women and men. Between 1979 and 2003, labor force participation rose rapidly for these women, along with more modest increases in wages, while among the men both employment and wages fell. David Card and John DiNardo review the evidence on how technological changes have affected less-skilled workers and conclude that the effect has been smaller than many observers claim. Philip Levine examines the effectiveness of the Unemployment Insurance program during recessions. He finds that the program’s eligibility rules, which deny benefits to workers who have not met minimum earnings requirements, exclude the very people who require help most and should be adjusted to provide for those with the highest need.  On the other hand, Therese J. McGuire and David F. Merriman show that government help remains a valuable source of support during economic downturns.  They find that during the most recent recession in 2001, when state budgets were stretched thin, legislatures resisted political pressure to cut spending for the poor. Working and Poor provides a valuable analysis of the role that public policy changes can play in improving the plight of the working poor. A comprehensive analysis of trends over the last twenty-five years, this book provides an invaluable reference for the public discussion of work and poverty in America.

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