The American Voices Project

In the U.S. and many other countries, there is a well-developed infrastructure for counting the number of people in poverty, but less attention is paid to monitoring the changing conditions of poverty, how those conditions differ across places and “poverty types,” and how those in poverty respond to these differing conditions. Because the social and economic costs of poverty are so high, and because these costs loom large as the U.S. attempts to compete against countries that pay a lower “poverty tax,” there is ample incentive to find ways to reduce poverty.

The American Voices Project, which will initially be carried out in the U.S. and then extended to other countries, addresses these issues with an innovative new infrastructure for monitoring poverty and systematically examining how the poor live and how they fare in the context of stress, disruption, and deprivation. The study draws representative samples from three poverty populations (extreme poverty, middle poverty, near poverty) along with one middle-class comparison group.

The study will become a key resource for basic and policy research on poverty. The following are the most obvious payoffs:

  • Validity of poverty measurement: How are low-income people are actually living? Does the Supplemental Poverty Measure accurately represent who is and is not experiencing deprivation?.
  • Gradations of poverty: What are the qualitative differences between various poverty populations? Do the extreme-poor, middle-poor, and near-poor populations have different lives, experiences, and strategies for making ends meet? Do existing poverty policies address their needs equally well?
  • Hidden poverty populations: How do subpopulations that have remained largely hidden in other studies, including childless women, middle-aged adults, the elderly, and doubled-up families, experience poverty?
  • Retesting key conclusions: Can the inferences made from classic and highly influential qualitative studies can stand up to rigorous tests based on systematic samples?
  • Early warning system: What do real-time assessments show about how the poverty population is dealing with national emergencies (e.g., recessions) and sweeping new policy (e.g., health care reform, school reform)?
  • Develop new theories and interventions: How can new interventions be developed from the bottom-up on the basis of qualitative evidence on (a) the everyday lives of the extreme poor, moderately poor, and near-poor, (b) how they react to immediate or long-term need, and (c) how they engage with the informal (or formal) safety net?