Posts Tagged ‘poor’


More than 400 thousand Philadelphians live in poverty. The United States, even after the latest decline, still has more than 43 million men, women, and children below the poverty line. And nearly one half of the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—are poor (more than 1.3 billion of them in extreme poverty).

And yet the policy debate remains the same: how do we get poor people to get themselves out of the “culture of poverty”?

Not how do eliminate poverty? Or, alternatively, how do we create the economic and social institutions that don’t, on a regular and sustained basis, drive millions of people into and keep many of them in poverty?

Instead, what we get from Steve Volk [ht: ja] on Philadelphia, just like from Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (in their book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty) for the Third World, is a focus on the pathologies of the poor and the strategies that can be tested and implemented so that poor people can find their way out of poverty.

Now, I’ll admit, Volk writes (of Mattie McQueen and other poor Philadelphians) with more heart than Banerjee and Duflo seem to be able to muster. But it’s the same basic idea—that there’s something enduring about poverty, which pertains to poor people and “their” culture and which needs to be disrupted with the right sort of economic interventions.

In Volk’s case, the problem is “generational poverty”—such that poverty is passed down through two or more generations. And the solution is the “two-gen” strategy, such as the HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) program Bill Clinton celebrated at the Democratic National Convention.

In practical terms, the strategy means providing educational support to kids while offering the full range of housing, social, mental-health and economic services to their parents. “In hindsight, this way of approaching generational poverty looks kind of obvious,” says Susan Landry, director and founder of the Children’s Learning Institute in Houston, Texas. “Everyone wants to help children. What the two-gen strategy recognizes is that children exist in families.”

Educating children without stabilizing the home, says Landry, puts kids in an impossible position — requiring them to lead their parents. Making a child’s home safer and less stressful yields huge benefits in the child’s ability to learn. And two-gen strategies are gaining support among conservatives and progressives alike. Republican governors like Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah champion the two-gen approach for imparting a sense of responsibility to parents and streamlining government — parking disparate social agencies under one roof. Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, recently told NPR that helping children requires helping their families — a truism of two-gen thinking.

What is true of all such programs—the ones Volk writes about as well as those that are tested through randomized control trials by Banerjee and Duflo—is they focus on improving individual decisions and household environments, not on the history and dynamics of larger economic and social structures that create and perpetuate mass poverty. In other words, it’s all about individual, not social, responsibility and outcomes. The goal, it seems, is to change individual decisions and promote the mobility of a select few up and out of poverty—and, by the same token, to avoid an analysis of the kinds of changes that need to be made in the economy in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.*

The problem, as I see it, is not a culture of poverty. It’s a culture of poor economics.


*I am reminded of an early World Development Report (unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact year) in which it was shown that a redistribution of productive assets (such as land reform) was much more likely to end poverty than other reforms (such as universal schooling). However, the authors of the report argued, land reform often faces social and political opposition, especially from landlords, and therefore needs to be set aside since it is an unrealistic strategy.


Special mention

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There are, of course, many aspects of the U.S. healthcare system I have not had the opportunity to discuss over the course of this series on Unhealthy Healthcare. I am thinking of the growth of new, profitable medical centers (e.g., for out-patient surgery), plus biotechnology companies, diagnostic clinics, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes. There are also all the nurses, orderlies, bookkeepers, and administrative staff, primary-care physicians and therapists in rehabilitation services, the hospital volunteers and the underpaid staff who provide care in nursing homes, the dedicated people who set up clinics for underserved populations, and many others who are forced to work under increasingly difficult conditions to provide decent healthcare to the American people.

But no matter how hard those healthcare workers labor, the current system of U.S healthcare is a failure. It provides less healthcare at a higher cost than in other rich countries. And it continues to leave large numbers of Americans, especially workers and the poor, without access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.

The U.S. healthcare system, as it is currently configured, only really works for those who make a profit—selling health insurance, pharmaceuticals, and in-patient and acute-care services in hospitals—and those who have the wherewithal to finance their own healthcare.


As it turns out, the majority of Americans know this. According to the latest Gallup poll, 54 percent of respondents have a somewhat or very negative view of the healthcare industry. And 60 percent have only some, very little, and no confidence in the current medical system. On top of that, 82 percent worry (either a great deal or a fair amount) about the availability and affordability of healthcare in the United States.



In fact, the majority of Americans (58 percent) say they would like to see the 2010 health care law, the Affordable Care Act, replaced with care for all—along the lines presented most recently by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Obviously, workers and poor people in the United States need and want a healthier healthcare system. The question then is, what would should a system look like?

Here I’ll admit, I don’t have a detailed plan of what the U.S. healthcare system should be or how exactly it should be transformed. There are plenty of such plans out there (the best known of which is probably the single-payer program developed back in 1989 by the Physicians for a National Health Program). And I’m not about to develop and present a new one.

Instead, I am guided by a lesson I learned from an old friend (a veteran of more than three decades of working in the trade-union movement): formulate and win people over to the general goal and, once they’re committed to it, let policymakers and stakeholders negotiate and work out the details to reach that goal.

In this case, the goal is universal, affordable, high-quality healthcare.

Such a system would provide high-quality healthcare (physical and mental, encompassing prevention, acute-care, substance-abuse, rehabilitation, and late-life) to all Americans (without exception, especially those who at the middle and bottom of the economic ladder) at an affordable price (since, as I see it, Americans are willing to pay for decent healthcare but it should be according to their ability to pay, which it currently is not).

That’s it. We shouldn’t care how they provide it. Just that they do so.* And if the key components of the current healthcare system stand in the way, because they’re making profits on how the system is currently organized and don’t want to see real change, they should be bypassed or nationalized (as the case requires). Then, the other private and public entities, the ones actually committed to the goal, can get on with the task of imagining and implementing the universal, affordable, high-quality healthcare system Americans deserve.


*Although, to my view, a healthier healthcare system right now probably involves some combination of single-payer (federal and state) financing and a network of non-profit, community, and cooperative healthcare providers.

wealth shares

[modified from the original source (pdf)]

We’ve been learning a great deal about the conditions and consequences of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States—now, in the past, and it seems for the foreseeable future.

Right now, inequality is escalating within public higher education, especially in research universities that are chasing both tuition revenues and rankings. Thus, the editorial board of the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, found it necessary to criticize the lifting of the out-of-state student enrollment cap because it betrays the Wisconsin Idea and is making the university both “richer and whiter.”

Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.

The Wisconsin students are right.* As recent research by Ozan Jaquette, Bradley R. Curs, and Julie R. Posselt confirms, public research universities are increasingly relying on tuition increases to fund their activities.** Thus, they are admitting more nonresident students—both for their out-of-state tuition payments and to raise the universities’ academic profile—and, as a result, the proportion of historically underrepresented students and especially of low-income students is declining. Moreover,

The shift towards nonresident students suggests that public research universities have increased the value they place on students who pay high tuition and have high test scores. This shift is indicative of a deeper change in organizational values, away from the public good emphasis on access and towards the self-interested emphases of academic profile and revenue generation. As scholars, campus leaders, or policymakers, we must ask ourselves, whether these are the values we want our flagship public institutions to promote?

We also need to look at the way inequality played out in American history, and make the appropriate connections to the present and future. In a recent paper, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine the situation of labor markets during the first Gilded Age. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that labor markets in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are as close as we have seen in U.S. history to the unregulated labor market that is presumed and celebrated within neoclassical economics. But, the authors explain, those Gilded-Age labor markets were characterized by high levels of conflict—between labor movements and employer organizations (over wages and, when workers went on strike, replacement workers or scabs)—which, in turn, called on increased levels of judicial intervention as well as domestic policing and military intervention, generally on the side of the employers.***

And the implications for the United States, in the second Gilded Age:

Looking around today, it is obvious that inequality and conflict over the distribution of wealth and income remain salient a century after the first Gilded Age. History is never a perfect guide, but the late 19th century suggests that even as markets play a greater role in allocating labour, legal and political institutions will continue to shape bargaining power between firms and workers, and thus the division of rents within the firm. What remains to be determined – and battled over – is which institutions are empowered to act, and whose interests they will represent. Regardless, latent labour market conflict seems likely to be a prominent feature of our new Gilded Age.

Finally, what can we way about inequality looking forward? According to Robert Shiller, it “could become a nightmare in the decades ahead.”

The reason for this dire prognosis is that the structures that create high levels of inequality in the first place serve as barriers to policies that might actually lessen the amount of inequality. According to Angus Deaton, “Those who are doing well will organize to protect what they have, including in ways that benefit them at the expense of the majority.” Historically, the only exceptions in capitalist democracies emerge in times of war, “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.”

And contra Robert Solow (“We are not good at large-scale redistribution of income”), capitalist societies have consistently shown to be very good at large-scale redistribution of income toward the top—just not particularly interested in moving in the opposite direction, in redistributing income to those at the bottom.

In fact, neither Shiller nor the nine other economists who contributed to a recent project on long-term forecasting “expressed optimism that inequality would be corrected in the future, and none of us ventured that any major economic policy was likely to counteract recent trends.”****

Shiller uses Satyajit Ray’s 1973 movie “Distant Thunder”—about the Bengal famine of 1942-43, when millions died, almost all from the lower classes—to illustrate our current dilemma. There was plenty of food in the Bengal Province of British India to keep everyone alive but “the food was not shared adequately.”*****

Systems of privilege and entitlement permitted hoarding of food by people of status whose lives went on much as usual, except that they had to brush off starving beggars and would occasionally see dead bodies on the street.

It’s clear that, today, there are plenty of goods—food, clothing, and shelter—to go around but they’re not being shared equally. Not by a long shot. The problem is, existing “systems of privilege and entitlement” permit the accumulation of wealth on one end and misery on the end—just as they did during the first Gilded Age and, unless things change, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the lives of people of status go on much as usual, in their “bougie playground”—except they have to brush off the contemporary equivalent of starving beggars and occasionally see the analogy today of dead bodies on the street.


*It should perhaps come as no surprise that a prominent mainstream economist, Rebecca Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013, is the one who sought (and won) an end to the cap on out-of-state and international students.

**As Stephanie Saul reports,

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university, including room and board, increased from $11,655 in 2000 to $19,548 in 2015, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the City University of New York system, tuition at four-year colleges is now $6,330, having increased by $300 each year since 2011, when it was $4,830. . .

“What Sanders figured out — it’s not the $65,000 cost of attendance at some of our pricier privates driving the debt bubble, but rather the disinvestment and privatization of public higher ed,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

***This is one of the examples I use in my graduate-level course on the Political Economy of War and Peace—that the United States has its own history of intrastate wars (which, like many such wars in recent times, have been class wars) and that, as the authors explain, “military and law enforcement institutions of the United States, in particular the Army, the National Guard, and the FBI, can trace their origins to the federal troops, state militias, and private Pinkertons deployed in 19th century labor conflicts.”

****The key point Shiller does not address is the role mainstream economics has played both in creating the current levels of inequality and in creating barriers to imagining and enacting policies and strategies for doing away with the grotesque levels of inequality we are witnessing today.

*****Amartya Sen famously argued that democracy prevents famines. That may be true. But it doesn’t prevent hunger or the other economic and social catastrophes that stem from the high levels of inequality we’ve witnessed during the first and second Gilded Ages in the United States.


Everyone knows wealth in the United States is unequally distributed, even more than the nation’s income (and that’s saying something).

For example, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office [ht: ja],

In 2013, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held 1 percent. Average wealth was about $4 million for families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution, $316,000 for families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, and $36,000 for families in the 26th to 50th percentiles. On average, families at or below the 25th percentile were $13,000 in debt.

But, wait, it gets worse. The distribution of wealth among the nation’s families was more unequal in 2013 than it was in 1989. For instance, the difference in wealth held by families at the 90th percentile and the wealth of those in the middle widened from $532,000 to $861,000 over the period (both in 2013 dollars). The share of wealth held by families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution increased from 67 percent to 76 percent, whereas the share of wealth held by families in the bottom half of the distribution declined from 3 percent to 1 percent.*

Yes, that’s right: in 2013, the bottom half of U.S. families held only 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.


And it gets even worse: from 1989 to 2013, the average wealth of families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989. It declined by 19 percent (in contrast to the 153-percent increase for families in the top 10 percent). And the average wealth of people in the bottom quarter was thousands of dollars less in 2013 than it was in 1989.**

poor wealth

So, let’s get this straight. The share of wealth going to the top 10 percent of households, already high, actually increased between 1989 and 2013. And the share held by the bottom 50 percent, already tiny, fell. And, finally, the average wealth for families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989 and many more of them were in debt.

Now, to put things in perspective, the United States had Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) during thirteen of the twenty-four years when workers and the poor were being fleeced.

And now they’re being asked to vote for one more Democrat, with the same economic program, because it will “make history”?


*To be clear, a large portion of the decline in wealth for the bottom 50 percent occurred after the crash. Still, compared with families in the top half of the distribution, families in the bottom half experienced disproportionately slower growth in wealth between 1989 and 2007, and they had a disproportionately larger decline in wealth after the 2007-09 recession.

**In 1989, families at or below the 25th percentile were about $1,000 in debt. By 2013, they were about $13,000 in debt, on average. Overall indebtedness also increased during the same period: by 2013, 12 percent of families had more debt than assets, and they were, on average, $32,000 in debt.


Special mention

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A new study by Barry Bosworth, Gary Burtless, and Kan Zhang (pdf, as discussed here) reveals that (looking at mid-career earnings) the life expectancy gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution is growing.

For example (from the bottom half of the chart above), for 50-year old women in the top one-tenth of the income distribution, women born in 1940 could expect to live almost 6.4 years longer than women in the same position in the income distribution who were born in 1920. For 50-year old women in the bottom one-tenth of the income distribution, they found no improvement at all in life expectancy.

Longevity trends among low-income men were not much better: Men at the bottom saw only a small improvement in their life expectancy (of 1.7 years) compared to a much large increase for men at the top (8.7 years). So, the life-expectancy gap between low-income and high-income men increased just as fast as it did between low- and high-income women.

This growing gap in life expectancy has lots of different implications, such as the long-presumed progressivity of Social Security payouts (since low-wage contributors receive monthly checks that are a higher percentage of the monthly wages they earn during their careers than high-income participants). But, according to this and similar studies, we’re learning that the growing mortality differences between rich and poor are offsetting the redistributive tilt in Social Security’s benefit formula.

Perhaps even more important, the mortality gap is challenging our long-held expectation that successive generations live longer than the generations that preceded them. For the past three decades, however, improvements in average life spans at the bottom of the income distribution have been negligible while those at the top continue to grow.

What this finding suggests is that it’s not just income and wealth but life itself that has grown starkly more unequal in the United States.