David Brady: Rethinking the Risks of Poverty: Prevalences and Penalties in Comparative Perspective


Monday, April 13, 2015, 12:00pm to 1:45pm


Harvard Kennedy School: Allison Dining Room

David BradyDirector of Inequality and Social Policy Department, WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

Scholars have long focused on the risks of poverty, defined as individual-level labor market and family characteristics more common among the poor than the non-poor. This article first develops a framework for analyzing the risks of poverty in terms of prevalences (share of the population with a risk) and penalties (increased probability of poverty associated with a risk).

Using the Luxembourg Income Study, we compare the prevalences and penalties of the four chief risks (low education, single motherhood, young headship, and unemployment) across 29 rich democracies. There is much greater cross-national variation in penalties than prevalences.

Second, we apply this framework to the U.S. We show that the unusually high U.S. poverty results from very high penalties despite below average prevalences. Counterfactual simulations demonstrate U.S. poverty would decline with cross-national median penalties, but would not decline with cross-national median prevalences. Moreover, U.S. poverty in 2013 would actually be worse with prevalences from the U.S. in 1970 or 1980.

Third, we analyze the cross-national variation in prevalences and penalties. We find little evidence of the expected negative relationship between penalties and prevalences. We also show welfare generosity significantly moderates the penalty for two risks: unemployment and low education.

Among other conclusions, we propose: a) existing cross-national and historical variation in risks cannot explain most of the variation in poverty; and b) studies of the risks of poverty based solely on the U.S. suffer from sample selection biases.

 Paper is available for local seminar participants, but not for distribution on the web.

About the speaker

David Brady is the Director of the Inequality and Social Policy unit of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Among David Brady’s main fields of interest are poverty and inequality, in particular their causes, measurement and consequences. His lead question is: 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 (Oxford University Press) he analyzed how politics explain why poverty is so much higher in the US than in other affluent democracies.  He is a co-editor (with Linda Burton) of the forthcoming volume, The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty, expected out later this year.

In another key area of interest, work, labor and economic sociology, David Brady investigates the role of institutions, social relations, and structural changes for the organization of work. In recent years, he has conducted a number of studies on the causes of deindustrialization, the sources of labor unionization, and the consequences of economic globalization. 

A third focus of David Brady’s research is social policy and political economy, with a particular emphasis on understanding policy outcomes. His latest article with Amie Bostic),  "Paradoxes of Social Policy: Welfare Transfers, Relative Poverty, and Redistribution Preferences," appears in the current issue of the American Sociological Review (Apr 2015).

Prior to joining the WZB, David Brady was Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University.  He is the 2011 recipient of the Early Career Award (now known as the William Julius Wilson Award) from the Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility Section of the American Sociological Association.

See also: Spring 2015