Tag Archives: poverty

Rich And Poor

Arguments about poverty–suspicions about deservingness and general disdain for poor people–are nothing new. In the 15th Century, English Poor Laws forbid those who might be so inclined from “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those attitudes came with the colonists to the New World, augmented by the Calvinist belief that accumulation of wealth signaled a “predestined” moral merit.

George W. Bush–the self-described “Compassionate Conservative”–pushed his “faith-based initiative” with language that equated poverty with an absence of “middle-class values,” implying that what poor people needed wasn’t better pay or more money, but more faith and better values.

America’s version of capitalism hasn’t helped. As Ezra Klein wrote last June in the New York Times, 

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Klein was commenting on a proposal for a guaranteed income–not a Universal Basic Income, about which I’ve previously written, but an annual income that would phase out as recipients entered the middle class. Whatever the merits of either of those proposals, it behooves policy folks who care more about governing in the public interest than about keeping transgender kids out of the “wrong” bathroom to revisit some of the more destructive and erroneous beliefs about poor people.

As Klein quite accurately notes, opposition to proposals that would attack poverty by giving poor people money isn’t based on costs, but on benefits.

A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery. “It is a fact that when we pay workers less and don’t have social insurance programs that, say, cover Uber and Lyft drivers, we are able to consume goods and services at lower prices,” Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, where she also co-directs the Opportunity Lab, told me.

This is the conversation about poverty that we don’t like to have: We discuss the poor as a pity or a blight, but we rarely admit that America’s high rate of poverty is a policy choice, and there are reasons we choose it over and over again. We typically frame those reasons as questions of fairness (“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s laziness?”) or tough-minded paternalism (“Work is good for people, and if they can live on the dole, they would”).

These objections echo the English Poor Laws. Disdainful, financially-comfortable people ignore what we all know–that this country is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages, bad luck, and policy choices that favor the disdainful.

 We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Most Americans don’t think of themselves as benefiting from the poverty of others–but of course, as Klein points out, we do. So we object to proposals to ameliorate poverty with lectures about

how the government is subsidizing indolence, paeans to the character-building qualities of low-wage labor, worries that the economy will be strangled by taxes or deficits, anger that Uber and Lyft rides have gotten more expensive, and sympathy for the struggling employers who can’t fill open roles rather than for the workers who had good reason not to take those jobs.

We haven’t come very far from the 15th Ceentury.

 

Coerced Abortion

The pious frauds in the Indiana legislature have once again displayed their utter lack of self-awareness or integrity.

According to the Indianapolis Star, the World’s Worst Legislature–or at least the Senate portion of that embarrassing body–has passed a measure that will criminalize “coerced abortion.”

The Indiana Senate approved new abortion regulations on Tuesday by a 38-10 vote in an attempt to limit “coerced” abortions.

Supporters say it’s a necessary layer of protection to prevent Hoosier women from being forced into an unwanted abortion and to catch human traffickers, while opponents say the requirements just further stigmatize abortions without actually helping women.

Now, I will grant you that the Indiana legislature is not known for exercises in logic or for considering that pesky thing called “evidence,” but if they were so inclined, they would discover that such coercion is far less likely to be exercised by a parent or male partner than by the reality of poverty.

Data compiled by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops–a very pro-life organization–is unequivocal:

Surveys indicate that low-income women are more against abortion than other women. Yet economic realities pressure many to act against their convictions. This has been a disturbing reality for a long time, and is getting worse.

In a 2005 study, 73% of women undergoing an abortion said not being able to afford a baby now was a reason for the abortion. That number rose to 81% for women below the federal poverty line. And while the abortion rate for American women declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008, among poor American women it increased by 18%.

It occurred to me that Catholic social teachings  about poverty might have incentivized the bishops to cherry-pick the data. But no–research conducted by the pro-choice  Guttmacher Institute has come to the same conclusion, as has a study published in 2017 by the American Journal of Public Health.

Studies have determined that most women having abortions– fifty-nine percent of them in 2014 –had had at least one previous birth. But  three-fourths of them were low income—49% living at less than the federal poverty level, and 26% living at 100–199% of the poverty level. Many also lacked health insurance, and in the U.S., even an uncomplicated childbirth is very expensive.

Bottom line, readily available data confirms that not being able to afford a child–or another child–is what impels (coerces) a large number of women to abort. So clearly, it’s the  lawmakers who consistently vote for public policies that operate to keep women impoverished who are really guilty of “coercing” women to terminate their pregnancies.

The piety police in our legislature have chosen to ignore such “inconvenient” data. To the contrary; the GOP super-majority has doggedly pursued policies intended to keep all Hoosiers–especially female Hoosiers–poor. I’ve written previously about the ALICE reports issued by the Indiana United Ways. Those meticulous reports should embarrass lawmakers sufficiently to motivate change. But this is Indiana, so… no.

The same lawmakers who purport to be concerned about “coercion” of abortion have steadfastly refused to raise Indiana’s minimum wage, which has remained at 7.25/hour since 2008, despite copious evidence that full-time minimum wage work doesn’t even rise to the level of subsistence–and despite data from places that have raised the wage that convincingly rebuts the old argument that a higher minimum wage translates into fewer jobs.

Worse still, In Indiana, lots of folks don’t even get that 7.25 an hour–they’re exempt from the requirement. Employees who are exempt from this minimum wage include:

Tipped employees must be paid a cash minimum of $2.13 per hour, with a $5.12 tip credit to earn $7.25 an hour (including tips).

A special training minimum wage of $4.25 per hour can be paid to workers under 20 years of age for the first 90 days of employment.

Full-time high school and college students can be paid 85 percent of Indiana minimum wage ($6.16) if they are participating in a work-study program or working 20 or fewer hours per week.

And don’t even whisper about providing expanded or universal health care…why, in Indiana, that’s commie talk.

Genuinely “pro-life” lawmakers would support policies making it easier for low-income pregnant women to afford birthing and feeding the child they’re carrying. But that might cost money better spent on tax cuts and/or the priorities of their donors–so these phonies opt to vote for meaningless performative policies.

If this piece of garbage legislation becomes law, the “coercers” who should be criminally charged are the members of Indiana’s GOP super-majority. But thanks to gerrymandering, most of them won’t even lose their seats…

 

 

 

 

French Lessons

France has a growing middle class. The United States has a shrinking middle class.

I realize that Americans are reluctant to learn from other countries (most prominent example: healthcare, where we insist on spending twice as much for much poorer results, because hey! we’re Amurica and we know best about everything…), but we really could learn a lot if we were so inclined.

According to the Washington Spectator (link unavailable), America’s middle class has dropped from 60% of all households in the 1980s to 50% in the mid 2010s. Meanwhile, the French middle class rose from 60% to 68%.

The poverty rate for U.S. children in two-parent families in 2010 was 13.7%; in France, it was 8.2%. (That was for children in two-parent families. For all American children, the child poverty rate is 21%; in France, it is 5.7%. As the Spectator points out, the damaging effects of growing up poor are well-documented and socially undesirable.

Why the difference? What does France do right that we don’t?

Although the article fails to mention it, that health care system I referenced is a huge asset to French families, especially families with children. Just knowing that an unexpected illness won’t wipe you out is a big stress reliever, as is the knowledge that you can take a sick child to the doctor without the visit making you late with the rent.

Although the article doesn’t mention health care, it does focus on three other aspects of French social policy that are very different from ours, and that the author finds particularly important: paid parental leave, affordable child care and the French tax system.

In France, paid family leave replaces 100% of the average wages earned by women in the three months following birth or adoption. Eight weeks of paid leave are mandatory, although many businesses offer more. The U.S., in contrast, is the only developed nation that does not have a national paid leave program; as a result, some 25% of new mothers return to work within ten days of giving birth. (It hurts even to type that statistic; I remember how long it took me to feel up to par after childbirth!)

The French child-care system is even more impressive to someone like me, who struggled to find adequate childcare despite having the financial wherewithal to pay for it. France has creches–childcare centers for infants and toddlers under 3–and part-time centers that operate both before and after school. There are other centers that open on days when school is out, and during summer vacations. And all of them are subsidized by the French government. The cost to a family is approximately $1.25 per hour per child.

In the U.S., the after-tax cost of childcare is equal to 38% of average U.S. wages, one of the things that makes parenting an expensive proposition and is a disincentive to women with children entering the workforce.

Finally, French families with children are taxed at a lower rate than families without children. The disparity in tax rates, the maternal leave policy and the generous subsidies for comprehensive child care are all justified by the French belief that children are an investment in the future of the nation.

Clearly,  American policymakers don’t see it that way.

File Under “Kick ‘Em When They’re Down”

A few days ago, a neighbor shared a blog post by a friend of hers.

The post referenced a recent report by the United Nations, accusing the Trump Administration of intentionally making life more difficult for poor Americans while taking steps to enrich the already privileged. I had seen an article on the report in the Guardian, but so far as I–and the author of this blog– know, that was the only news source that addressed it.

Were it not for the source, it would hardly be news to learn that the United States can’t take care of its most needy—that it may be the richest country, but it is also increasingly, appallingly, unequal in how its wealth and opportunities are shared. When the various dimensions of human security are examined, critics have long noted that the US falls short, whether in treatment of children, poverty rates, income gaps between rich and poor, or even life expectancy. All this has been amply documented in annual reports of the United Nations Development Programme (http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf), which I’ve discussed in previous blogs (#9 for example).

But now comes an update from a distinguished international legal scholar who is the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights. Philip Alston visited several deep pockets of poverty, from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Detroit to Puerto Rico, at the end of 2017. His report (UN General Assembly Doc. A/HRC/38/33/Add.1, May 4, 2018) is a devastating indictment of the government that underscores the large and growing contradictions between the American Dream and reality. Alston told The Guardian that Trump’s policies amount to “ a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own. Once you start removing any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty.”

The report acknowledges that previous administrations haven’t distinguished themselves by their concern for these inequities, but quotes Alston to the effect that the Trump Administration has “deliberately targeted the most vulnerable in society, kicking away every ladder of social wellbeing in order to serve Trump’s rich supporters and his alt-right agenda”.

In other words, it’s not that this government can’t take care of the poor. It won’t. It has no interest in doing so.

The blogger, Mel Gurtov, provides examples of the measures that Alston identified as particularly onerous to the most vulnerable:

• Debasing civil society: Supporting limits on voting rights with specious arguments about voter fraud and “covert disenfranchisement” such as gerrymandering and various ID requirements.
• Giving huge tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations while about 40 million people live below the poverty line—among them, 23.8 million considered in extreme or absolute poverty. The richest 1 percent of Americans now account for 20 percent of national income, double the percentage in 1980. “The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” says Alston in a separate statement (www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533).
• Putting new limits on basic anti-poverty measures such as work requirements for welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, health insurance, and veterans’ benefits.
• Limiting opportunity: “The United States now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries. . . . The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class White workers.”
• Promoting racist stereotypes that seek to stigmatize non-whites as being mainly poor, lazy, and unworthy of uplifting.
• Tolerating the highest rate of infant mortality, the highest rate of youth poverty, and the highest income inequality among all rich countries.*
• Treating Puerto Rico as a colony, and imposing fiscal discipline that fails to take into account people’s need of social protection. (The mayor of San Juan says it all: Trump’s , total neglect has to be called [out]. The United Nations says that when people are denied the right to access to basic human services — like electric power, like water, like food, like appropriate medical care — that it is a violation of human rights.”)

We’ve gone from a war on poverty to a war on the impoverished.

We’ve become a country without compassion, where the shameless and greedy eat bon bons and watch the poor scramble for crumbs. Our cruelty, together with the President’s erratic and embarrassingly ignorant behavior, has squandered America’s claim to any vestige of continued moral authority.

How long can this go on before it becomes irreversible?

Alice–Updated, Slipping Further Behind

Regular readers of this blog have met ALICE before. ALICE is an acronym standing for “Asset limited, income constrained, employed.” That last word–employed–is important; it puts the lie to the widespread fiction that struggling Americans just need to work, or work harder.

The Association of United Ways issued the original ALICE report in 2014, updated it in 2016, and have now produced data for 2018. It isn’t pretty.

For those who haven’t met ALICE, the report describes her:

ALICE is your child care worker, your parent on Social Security, the cashier at your supermarket, the gas attendant, the salesperson at your big box store, your waitress, a home health aide, an office clerk. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.

As the researchers point out, traditional measures of poverty don’t capture the real picture–the number of people who are struggling financially because the actual cost of life’s necessities where they live is more than they earn.

Indiana, for example, has 2,530,581 households. Thirteen and a half percent of those households fall below the official poverty line–but another 25.2% fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold. That’s 38.7% of Hoosiers who face a constant, debilitating struggle for economic survival.

The Indianapolis Business Journal (subscription required) recently began a series it is calling “One City, Worlds Apart” focusing on the dimensions of that struggle and the consequences for the city as a whole.

The number of Indianapolis residents living in poverty rose from 11.8 percent in 2000 to 21.3 percent in 2015 — an increase of more than 85,000 people. During that same period, the city’s population only grew 90,000.

About 30 percent of Indianapolis children lived in poverty in 2015, a particularly worrisome finding, because recent research has found that growing up in impoverished homes has a quantifiably negative effect on children’s cognitive ability.

The stress experienced by impoverished and ALICE families isn’t just financial: struggling people live in poorer neighborhoods that are less safe and less healthy. They lack the time and resources that permit other citizens to participate in civic and political life–and as a result, their voices aren’t heard–or their needs considered– in most public policy debates.

As the ALICE reports have emphasized, ALICE folks are in large part the workers that we more privileged folks rely upon for a multitude of essential services. Evidently, we aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the people who provide those services. (There’s a parallel here with our unwillingness to pay taxes adequate to support the public services we demand.)

The irony is, we pay in other ways. As the ALICE reports and the  Business Journal series document, there are significant social costs to a system that leaves so many hard-working people behind.

Dismissing the struggle of ALICE families as a consequence of laziness or lack of ambition is a sign of moral obtuseness–when it isn’t intentionally self-serving. When you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you should probably check to see if they have any boots.