March 22, 2016

Cornell University Professor Creates Online Poverty and Risk Calculator

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Prof. Thomas Hirschl, development sociology, has created a program that calculates the likelihood users will fall below the federal poverty line, according to a University press release.

Hirschl’s ‘Risk Calculator’ utilizes factors such as level of education, age, race and marital status to compute the user’s economic stability in the next five, 10 and 15 years.

Hirschl developed the calculator in collaboration with Prof. Mark Rank, sociology, Washington University and Prof. Kirk Foster, African American studies, University of South Carolina, the press release said.

The Internet-based calculator — which has already been accessed by over 63,000 people — accompanies a book that Hirschl, Rank and Foster wrote in 2014, according to the release.

Hirschl said he created the calculator to remind people about the factors contributing to poverty, in the release.

“The idea of the poverty calculator is we’re trying to make poverty risk more real, so that people can see where they stand and where people like them stand,” he said.

Hirschl obtained the data for his calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey that has been collecting information about families for over 50 years. He used $24,000 — the 2015 federal poverty line for a family of four — as his reference for what constituted ‘poverty,’ according to the Risk Calculator website.

Life events that usually result in drastic changes — such as job loss, divorce or a major illness — can lead to a period of poverty, according to Hirschl.

“We have a society where, if you fall on hard times, you feel that it’s your fault, that there’s something wrong with you,” he said in the release. “Among whites, that’s especially true. There’s very little understanding about social causality and the decisions that we’ve made as a country, particularly since 1970.”

Hirschl said that he hopes the calculator will spark a nationwide discussion on poverty, so that government officials can address the issue.

“A lot of the political discussion doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but people are starting to come to terms with issues they haven’t thought about,” Hirschl said. “We need to go into the discussion with intellectual clarity. We hope the calculator will help establish a baseline to bring about that clarity.”