FEATURES • Spring 2002

Mark Rank, professor of social work, wants to show what is really out there in American society. In his research and teaching, he challenges conventional wisdom—debunking myths surrounding poverty and the poor, destroying the theory that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites, and now examining the tenets of the American promise: liberty, equality, and justice.

By Nancy Mays

Mark Rank, professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work (GWB), has a challenge.

Picture poverty. Close your eyes for one moment and imagine what the "poor" look like.

Who did you see?

Did you see a woman with too many children counting food stamps in the grocery store line? A man frittering his welfare check in a bar? Maybe a person of color lacking the desire to work hard enough to get out of poverty?

Skewed images, says Rank. Common, but skewed—by the media, by our own private prejudices.

ere's the truth about poor people: They are everywhere. Next door. In the office down the hall. On your own family tree.

"Many Americans think of the poor as over there, across town," says Rank. "They think of them as the chronically disenfranchised, but that's only a small slice of who will experience poverty. We've found that between the ages of 20 and 65, about two-thirds of Americans will use some kind of welfare program. That's most of us. And when that many Americans experience poverty, there is no 'us vs. them.'

"My work challenges the preconceived notions we have about people who are poor, people on welfare. I try to show what's actually out there."

Professor Mark Rank (left) meets with doctoral student Walt Paquin, M.S.W. '96, to discuss issues related to urban communities, housing, and poverty.

By all accounts, Mark Rank does not seem like the confrontational sort. He is both affable and quick-humored. Still, dismantling the myths we have about poverty is confrontational work. Piercing Middle America's bubble requires a certain combative edge, especially when you are one of them: a middle-class guy from Wisconsin raised in what he calls a "moderately conservative" family.

So how did he get from there to here?

"I just believe, really believe, that the issue of poverty—the issue of the downtrodden—is something that's important and that we should pay attention to.

"People say, 'Oh yeah, they brought it on themselves.' But that's a way of letting ourselves off the hook. People talk about poverty and welfare all the time, and what they say is often not correct, which is disturbing. If you're going to talk about it, you ought to bring reality to bear. By doing that, you hope to shift the way we think about these issues. Then you hope to shift the way we act on these issues."

Over the past decade, Rank has built a national reputation for uncovering both the statistical realities and the human dimension of living on welfare. His latest work, with research partner Thomas A. Hirschl of Cornell University, estimates the likelihood of poverty across the life span. A recent article appearing in the journal Social Work marked the first time such figures were calculated. Just as researchers estimate life expectancy, Rank and Hirschl looked at 30 years of longitudinal data and found that 58 percent of Americans will experience at least one year of poverty between the ages of 20 and 75. In addition, two-thirds of adults will receive a means-tested welfare program, such as Food Stamps or Supplemental Security Income, by the time they reach age 65. They also found that most people encountering poverty or the use of welfare do so over fairly short intervals: typically, one or two years. Last year, their research was awarded an Outstanding Research Award from the Society for Social Work and Research, one of the field's highest honors and one of only two awards given.

"The work represents a different way of looking at poverty," says Rank. "No one has looked over the entire life span before. We're looking beyond how many people are poor right now, to how many will experience poverty over the course of a lifetime. We found that poverty and the use of social safety nets aren't confined to marginalized groups that fall outside mainstream America. They're used by mainstream America."

Without a doubt, Rank's most enduring contribution to the field is the way he's turned commonly held beliefs upside down, says colleague Katherine Newman, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Urban Studies in the Kennedy School, and dean of Social Science, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, at Harvard University.

"Contrary to popular understanding, he shows us that the poor who rely on welfare are largely white, often disabled, frequently married, and always struggling to survive because of circumstances that would be beyond the control of any individual," says Newman. In his book, Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, which first positioned him as a national voice on poverty, Rank left his office and went inside the homes of people trying to make it on government assistance. The result was a heartfelt, academic examination of welfare recipients. The myths his research and book have shattered include the following:

Myth One: People on welfare have lots of children so they can get more money.

"Actually," says Rank, "the birthrates of women on welfare are slightly lower than the overall rates. Sure, you can find people who fit the stereotype—women with large numbers of children. But that's not typical. We tend to focus on these cases even though they're the minority."

Myth Two: Most welfare recipients are inner-city African Americans.

"About two-thirds of people who receive welfare are white. Overall, there are more whites than blacks. When we think 'poor,' we think 'city.' We forget there is severe poverty in parts of rural America."

Myth Three: Welfare is a way of life, a torch passed from one generation to the next.

According to Rank's research, only 1 out of 4 welfare recipients had parents who also used welfare, while 1 in 20 recipients is using welfare frequently and also grew up in a household that frequently used welfare.

Rank's view of welfare not only challenges existing research, it inspires the future generation of researchers.

"Mark is a superb teacher," says Shanti Khinduka, the George Warren Brown Distinguished Professor and dean of GWB. "His lectures are suffused with data that he communicates in a lucid and highly engaging style."

Former student William Rainford, M.S.W. '96, who is finishing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, says he is using Rank's classes as a foundation for his dissertation research, examining welfare mothers who have been punished by the welfare system for noncompliance.

"My understanding of poverty and inequality forms the base of my theoretical framework, and without the knowledge and understanding that I learned from Professor Rank, I wouldn't even begin to be able to approach this very-difficult-to-understand population," says Rainford. "I was lucky to have studied with him. Any student would be."

We found that poverty and the use of social safety nets aren't confined to marginalized groups that fall outside mainstream America. They're used by mainstream America," says Mark Rank, professor of social work.

Rank's ability to challenge conventional wisdom spreads beyond the issue of poverty. In 1998, Rank and several colleagues destroyed the controversial theories espoused in The Bell Curve, which contends that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. The book, by conservative social theorists Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, fueled the debate to cut affirmative-action plans.

Using the same data, Rank and others found that The Bell Curve's authors had not accounted for differences in educational experiences before the subjects went to college. Rank and his WU colleagues say the book overstates the case for race-based differences in intelligence because it ignores a simple but crucial factor: how the quality of elementary and secondary school education affects IQ scores.

Rank collaborated on the work with other University faculty: Joel Myerson, research professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences; Fredric Q. Raines, associate professor of economics in Arts & Sciences; and Mark A. Schnitzler, research instructor in the School of Medicine's Health Administration Program.

The work Rank participated in noted that during their senior years in high school, whites tend to outscore blacks by as many as 15 IQ points. But if those same students graduate from college, the IQ scores of blacks increase more than four times as much as those of their white classmates. The result: The black-white IQ gap is cut in half by graduation.

"The Bell Curveresearchers were saying that in terms of intelligence, either you have it or you don't," says Rank. "We said, 'Absolutely not. Education makes a huge difference.' And we showed that empirically, which was a pretty important thing to be involved in."

It's that kind of inequity—the uneven quality of the nation's educational system—that drives Rank's work. His next major project is a book that looks at the promise of America, a broader view than his past research. He is taking the tenets of the American promise—liberty, equality, and justice—and using social science research to examine whether we live up to these values.

"My work has gone from focusing on welfare, to poverty, to broader questions of social justice," says Rank. "It's a logical progression."

What he hopes to show is that concern about poverty and inequities is consistent with mainstream values, is in all of our self-interests, and is part of our responsibility as members of broader communities.

"What kind of obligations, as American citizens, do we have to our people? That's what I'm looking at."

Nancy Mays is a free-lance writer based in Lenexa, Kansas.