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The book shows that poverty is less about “them” and more about “us.” Rank, the principal investigator, wrote in a Nov. 2 op-ed in The New York Times, “Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.”

Foster’s poverty research followed his stint in the ministry. Foster became an associate pastor of a large Missouri church in 1997 after earning a Master of Divinity degree from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Immanuel United Church of Christ was in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis. The decline of U.S. manufacturing fell heavily on Ferguson in the 1990s, and its residents became increasingly poor. Through a school program housed at his church, Foster frequently interacted with kindergarten and first-grade children and their parents. Foster said the emotional toll of economic distress was tangible. “I could see it sometimes on the faces of kids, and the faces of parents.”

Foster went back to school and became a poverty researcher. His doctoral dissertation studied how two churches in a poor neighborhood of a Midwest “Rust Belt” city acted as resource brokers for members to reach people with greater power and influence. As part of the dissertation, Foster and graduate students interviewed about 120 church members. He used a variety of analytical tools designed to parse not only demographic patterns, but also how people are connected in their social networks.

Foster said the research he did for Chasing the American Dream built on the experience of his earlier work. For the book, Foster conducted 75 interviews ranging from one to five hours from September 2010 to June 2011. “We weren’t able to include but a few of them in the book.” Nonetheless, an early draft of the book’s introduction describes the interviews as “forming the backbone of the book.”

Certain themes emerged from a variety of interviewees ranging from attorneys to artists:

  • The distinctions people construct in their minds between themselves and the poor are more imaginary than real.
  • The guardrails on the road of economic security are lower and weaker than most people think.
  • Poverty is less likely to stem from moral weakness than a severe illness, a layoff, or other twist of fate.

One story in the book is from a homeless man in his 50s. During the day, he took online courses on his laptop. At night, he covered it with his body so no one could steal it while he slept. Foster said the homeless man kept up his morale with his belief that earning an undergraduate degree from a state college meant “his current situation wasn’t a life sentence.”

His story “certainly paints a very different picture of poverty than many of us would like to imagine,” Foster said.

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