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A majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point because of systemic challenges – not poor choices – that state and federal policies can address, Jamila Michener, associate professor of government and policy in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy, told New York state lawmakers on Dec. 12.

Testifying before the state Senate’s Standing Committee on Cities 2, during a hearing on the causes and effects of poverty in New York’s medium- and small-sized cities, Michener said roughly 59% of Americans between ages 20 and 75 would spend at least one year below the official poverty line. The number rises to 76% when including people just above that threshold, she said, showing that poverty is a product not of individual behavior but systems and policies related to housing, health care, employment and the law.

“People are not experiencing poverty primarily because of the bad choices they’re making,” Michener said. “This is why a safety net is so critical, and it’s why state policy intervention is so critical.”

Michener’s testimony came two days before her participation in a White House roundtable focused on benefit-cost analysis, with experts including Catherine Kling, the Tisch University Professor of Environmental, Energy and Resource Economics in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, and in the Brooks School.

In Albany, Michener, who is co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, inaugural director of the university’s Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures and senior associate dean of public engagement at the Brooks School, said poverty’s causes are widely misunderstood. Her research focuses on poverty, racial inequality and public policy and is driven by a basic question that she posed during her testimony: In a country and a state with access to immense resources, why do people live in poverty?

Many Americans assume poverty is a big-city problem, but in fact more people live in poverty in medium- to small-sized cities, suburbs and rural areas, with rising housing costs and rent burdens a key reason, Michener said. Another common misunderstanding is that one can avoid poverty simply by playing by the rules – graduating from school, working hard, getting married before having children and so on. But evidence doesn’t support that narrative, Michener said: Research shows that even among families that do the “right” things, the poverty rate is 7.4%.

“No matter how independent, hardworking or industrious any person is, all New Yorkers are embedded in these sets of overlapping systems that indelibly structure their vulnerability to poverty,” Michener said. “And no one can stand alone and unassisted in the face of sickness, unexpected tragedy, unavoidable job loss, a volatile and unforgiving economy, human frailty, onerous care responsibilities, and so much more.”

Responding to questions from Sen. Rachel May of Syracuse, the standing committee’s chair, and Sen. Lea Webb, whose district includes Cornell’s Ithaca campus, Michener pointed to policies related to Medicaid, child tax credits, housing access and affordability, and tenant rights as opportunities for state action to reduce poverty.

She said policies should recognize that the housing stock in upstate New York’s cities is not only limited but old, resulting in health concerns about lead and asbestos exposure and environmental conditions such as mold and insect infestations. In an ongoing research project with colleagues from Syracuse University, Michener said, low-income residents reported being as concerned about habitability as they are about affordability.

“It’s not just that housing is expensive,” she said, “but it’s bad for their health.”

Positive or negative experiences with programs like Medicaid or housing courts can shape citizens’ perceptions of government and their willingness to engage with it through voting and advocacy, said Michener, author of the 2018 book “Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics.” She said among scholars there is a growing consensus that poverty is a political choice – a function of policy decisions about protections for people when they are most vulnerable.

“These are aspects of the human condition that require bold, comprehensive and – admittedly on your part – difficult action,” she said. “Such action recognizes and respects the bonds of our common humanity while securing the longevity and strength of our democracy.”

On Dec. 14, Michener and Kling were invited to speak at a roundtable co-hosted by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and Council of Economic Advisers. The event unveiled a report by a National Science and Technology Council subcommittee titled, “Advancing the Frontiers of Benefit-Cost Analysis: Federal Priorities and Directions for Future Research.”


James Dean, Cornell Chronicle