Lifting people out of poverty

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Yet too many Americans remain ensnared in poverty. The most recent US Census counted 46 million people living in poverty—the largest number in the 50 years on record. In addition, many working-class Americans are tenuously poised just above the poverty line. Economists note that today’s widening wealth disparities are damaging US economic growth.

Scholars at the School of Social Service Administration are dedicated to understanding poverty and how to alleviate it. They do so by producing new knowledge of the complex causes of poverty and how to prevent its inheritance through social institutions: family dysfunction, failing schools and healthcare systems, and shifts in the market economy such as the rise of part-time work as a new standard.


Fragile families are at greater risk of living in poverty. Recognizing that stronger families are the first step to stronger communities, cities, and nations, SSA examines potential fault lines (such as young parents, a single parent raising children alone, or income instability) to prevent those lines from cracking open.


Education is the next step, and Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor Melissa Roderick’s Network for College Success program is breaking the cycle of poverty by creating a pathway to college for students in urban public schools. With access to real-time data on Chicago Public Schools students, SSA researchers discovered the critical importance of the freshman year as a predictor of high school graduation and college attendance. Armed with these results, Roderick partnered with CPS and 18 of its high school principals to create the Network for College Success, which creates pathways for urban students to get to college.

Health care

In addition to being a burden on the budgets of all levels of government, the financial costs of illness and its treatment are a leading cause of individual bankruptcies and the perpetuation of poverty. SSA’s faculty and alumni are working to improve health—and healthcare policy—throughout the system. For more than 50 years, SSA’s Center for Health Administration Studies has examined and published the effects of healthcare disparities on vulnerable populations and educated more than a thousand leaders in the interrelated fields of law, business, medicine, policy, and social work as only the University of Chicago can. These talented individuals lead major medical centers, healthcare organizations, universities, government agencies, foundations, and consulting firms across the country.


Macroeconomic changes in the past 30 years such as globalization and the increase in part-time service-sector jobs have made employment in the United States increasingly precarious. Particularly for workers without a college degree, instability has increased both between and within jobs, with work schedules changing, benefits ever decreasing, and wages declining for the past 13 years. SSA’s Employment Instability, Family Well-being, and Social Policy Network (EINet) addresses poverty by mitigating income insecurity in this low-wage labor market. EINet brings more than a hundred researchers together with employers to understand the causes and consequences of instability, and to develop policies and interventions to make demonstrable improvements.


As part of their training, master’s and doctoral students at SSA work with and learn from the faculty members leading each of these research initiatives. As graduates, they disseminate the SSA model of evidence-based research through their leadership roles in organizations around the country and, increasingly, around the globe. They are taught to work at the personal level, but with an eye to the national and global scale, guided by the principle that it is smarter to solve a problem when it is small. In doing so, they transform the lives of vulnerable individuals and families who gain health, stability, income, and resilience. In total, and with your support, their work can change the trajectories of entire societies.