January 5, 2024

International Student Reflection on “Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America”

On November 30, I watched the recorded video of the presentation, Revealing the Legacy of Poverty in America, which featured leading poverty researchers Kathryn Edin, William Church Osborne Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs; and Timothy Nelson, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, both at Princeton University. They presented findings from their new book, “The Injustice of Place: Exposing the Legacy of Poverty in America.” The speakers began with the index of deep disadvantage, an introduction to the definition and dimensions of poverty, and then described the mechanisms by which types of poverty are created in the context of the various regions of the United States. The authors pointed to separate and highly unequal schools, loss of social infrastructure, violence, corruption, systemic racism in government policy, elite backlash, and social reproduction as causes of poverty in the United States.

As a Chinese international exchange student in the U.S., my impression of the U.S. has always been synonymous with Silicon Valley or cutting-edge technology, and this glamorous side of the U.S. caused me to overlook the fact that there is a gray part in any society. While it’s widely acknowledged that the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries globally, it's hard to fathom that it also ranks among the nations with the most significant wealth disparity. When compared to the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a notable finding is that on a key measure of income equality—the Gini coefficient[1]—the U.S. ranked higher than all member countries except Bulgaria, Turkey, Mexico and Costa Rica in recent data. Inequality in the distribution of wealth is more pronounced in Costa Rica and Mexico, but the U.S., as a mature, developed country, is very close to them in terms of inequality, reflecting the political and economic institutions behind the growing inequality in the United States.

The speakers focused on investing in social infrastructure and rooting out corruption as the solution to poverty in the U.S., which reminds me of China's well-lauded and highly successful solution to poverty: the targeted poverty alleviation policy, which focuses on tailoring assistance to specific individuals and regions in need, aiming to lift people out of poverty through precise and customized measures. However, this approach may not work in the United States. This is not only due to the plurality of U.S. politics, the diversity of political parties, and the complexity of regulations, which make it difficult for all levels of government to pursue and follow through on the same policies, but it may also reflect the U.S. culture of individualism, which may lead some to object to over-centralized government assistance, believing that it may diminish the efforts and responsibility of the individual.

Overall, I’m so honored to have had the opportunity to hear such a contextualized analysis of poverty in the U.S., which has given me more comparative thinking about poverty and inequality in a world context.

[1] The Gini coefficient is based on the comparison of cumulative proportions of the population against cumulative proportions of income they receive, and it ranges between 0 in the case of perfect equality and 1 in the case of perfect inequality. More information available at https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm. OECD (2023), Income inequality (indicator). doi: 10.1787/459aa7f1-en (Accessed on 20 December 2023)

Chloe (Jingwen) Zeng is a junior exchange student from Duke Kunshan University majoring in Public Policy Studies (B.A.) with institutions and governance major. She is interested in the role of public sectors in social inequity, with a focus on education policy.