Penn Arts and Sciences

Rethinking the Demographic Risks of Poverty: Prevalences and Penalties in a Comparative Global Perspective (David Brady)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

View now on YouTube.

Co-sponsored by the Penn Department of Sociology as part of their 2014-15 Colloquium Series.

TO THE EXTENT THAT THE PUBLIC ACKNOWLEDGES POVERTY as an “accident of birth” rather than the outcome of an individual’s choices or abilities, it is often demographic features – race, class, ethnicity, family background, parents’ marital status – that are foregrounded.  David Brady’s work, however, points to what he argues is an even greater determinant of poverty: the “accident of birth” into a country with a greater or lesser commitment to supporting its citizens socially and economically. Among the world’s affluent nations, those where the welfare state has been and remains more robust exhibit lower levels of poverty.  The variation is striking even when the example of the United States, exceptional in its high levels of poverty, is removed.  In this talk, Brady questions the customary focus on demographics within nations to explain poverty, and shows that these explanations fall short from a comparative global perspective.

“What explains this tremendous variation in poverty across the affluent Western democracies? This question represents a serious challenge to any theory of poverty. Theories of poverty should be able to explain why some affluent Western democracies maintain substantial poverty and others are more egalitarian and accomplish low levels of poverty. Yet, the conventional approach in poverty studies is to analyze only the United States and to compare the characteristics of poor people (perhaps in poor neighborhoods) to nonpoor people. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of poverty studies explain why one group of people within a country are more likely to be poor, or why some individuals are poor while others are not. Thus, conventional poverty research stops short of confronting the enormous cross-national differences. In contrast, I contend that these cross-national and historical differences in poverty are principally driven by politics.” – From Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty

David Brady is the Director of the “Inequality and Social Policy” research unit at the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Among his main fields of interest is poverty and inequality, in particular their causes, measurement and consequences. What explains the vast differences in poverty and inequality that exist across countries? In his 2009 book, Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty, he analyzed how politics explain why poverty is so much higher in the US than in other affluent democracies. He also investigates the relationship of social policy to political economy, with a particular emphasis on understanding policy outcomes. Presently, he is studying whether rising immigration to affluent democracies is altering attitudes regarding social policy. With Linda Burton, he is editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty.

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