Walter Bibikow Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom

Walter Bibikow Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom

Eighty percent of U.S. adults are “economically insecure,” according to media reports of a new study. But just what is “economic insecurity”? Are most Americans experiencing severe hardship?

The measure of “economic insecurity” used by the researcher, Mark Rank of Washington University in Missouri, gives no understanding of a household’s actual living conditions. To be “economically insecure,” according to his study, an adult must fit one of three criteria:

  1. Temporary unemployment,
  2. Use of government welfare, or
  3. Being “near poor,” meaning an income below 150 percent of the poverty line.

The study counts a person as “economically insecure” if he meets any one of these criteria—at any point, even once over an entire adult lifetime (defined as between 25 and 60 years of age).

That means an adult college student working part-time or living on financial aid would be considered basically the same as a person who is chronically unemployed and living in poverty.

Periodic unemployment is not particularly uncommon, especially at the beginning stages of one’s career. Additionally, with the growth of means-tested welfare and policies that make it easier to receive welfare, a larger portion of Americans are on the rolls. And, according to Rank, a person can also qualify as “economically insecure” if his annual income falls to $18,000 or less at any time during his adult life (or around $34,000 for a family of four).

“Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event,” Rank says, “can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”

In other words, more Americans in need equals greater justification for increased government welfare spending.

But poverty in the United States is far from the picture of material poverty painted by the media. And “economic insecurity” is even more distant. Even among households living below 100 percent of poverty, significant material hardship is rare.

There are, of course, those who do experience deep material want, but that number is nowhere near 80 percent and far lower than even the 15 percent poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau. To meet the needs of those truly in need, it’s important to understand poverty accurately.