What if Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong

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Researcher Kathryn Edin left the ivory tower for the streets of Camden—and turned sociology upside down.
—By Stephanie Mencimer

BLOND AND MIDWESTERN CHEERFUL, Kathryn Edin could be a cruise director, except that instead of showing off the lido deck, she’s pointing out where the sex traffickers live off a run-down strip of East Camden, New Jersey. Her blue eyes sparkle as she highlights neighborhood landmarks: the scene of a hostage standoff where police shot a man after he’d murdered a couple in their home and abducted their four-year-old; the front yard where a guy was gunned down after trying to settle a dispute between his son and two other teens.

Edin, 51, talks to every stranger we pass. She chirps hello to some guys working on a car jacked up in their front yard, some dudes selling pot, and a little girl driving a pink plastic jeep on the sidewalk. Most of them look at her like she’s from another planet—which in a way, she is.

A sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, Edin is one of the nation’s preeminent poverty researchers. She has spent much of the past several decades studying some of the country’s most dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods. But unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

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