About one in twenty Americans—or almost 16 million people—are struggling to survive in conditions of “deep poverty.” As Eduardo Porter observes, “No other advanced nation tolerates this depth of deprivation.
Clearly, as can been seen in the chart above, the number of people below 50 percent of the poverty threshold would be higher—more than three times higher—without some form of government assistance.* Still, the persistence of such poverty a fundamental change in the nature of government anti-poverty programs—from helping all poor people to increasing benefits only to those who work.
All in all, in the early 1980s more than half of government transfers to low-income families went to the very poorest. Thirty years later these families received less than one-third of the government’s help.
This choice, as a society, to target most of our help only to those who can help themselves exhibits a blinkered understanding of what perpetuates the deep, intractable poverty that affects many communities. But it serves a purpose. By believing the poor are not exerting enough effort, we allow ourselves not to care. This permits politicians — and voters — to go normally about their business while 16 million Americans live on $8.60 or less a day.
One might argue that fundamental change in anti-poverty programs, starting with Clinton’s 1996 welfare overhaul, represents an increasingly cruel and callous country, one that seeks to punish a large portion of the population that it has pushed into deep poverty. Alternatively, it’s a sign that the key criterion for government programs is not to alleviate poverty per se but to put increased pressure on poor people to be forced to have the freedom to work for someone else.
In the United States, we often refer to poor people as being “dependent” on government assistance. But the real dependence we have to face up to is the use of government programs to force people to make themselves available so that someone else can profit from their labor.
*The number and rates are calculated according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes the value of cash income from all sources, plus the value of in-kind benefits (such as nutritional assistance, subsidized housing, and home energy assistance) that are available to buy the basic bundle of goods, minus necessary expenses for critical goods and services not included in the thresholds.
A week ago, I posted a series of maps that illustrated the geographical overlaps between the lack of health insurance coverage in the United States and historical slave states, high rates of poverty, and Republican politics.
Now I can add another (from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York): the dispersion of life expectancy across counties in 2007.
We can see, for example, the counties that are colored light gold are in the bottom 20 percent of the life expectancy distribution, which ranges from 69.9 years to 75.2 years. They are, for the most part, the same regions that lack health insurance coverage, were slave states, have higher rates of poverty, and are predominantly Republican.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a connection. . .
Apparently, Maine is going to start limiting the financial assets of welfare recipients, effectively discouraging them from saving money.
The state will place a $5,000 cap on the savings and other assets of residents enrolled in the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Those whose bank accounts, secondary vehicles and homes, and other assets considered non-essential by the government, exceed the limit will no longer be eligible to participate in the food stamp program. An individual’s primary home and vehicle won’t count toward the limit.
The thinking, according to the Gov. Paul LePage’s office, is simple: People shouldn’t be allowed to take money from the government if they don’t need to. “Most Mainers would agree that before someone receives taxpayer-funded welfare benefits, they should sell non-essential assets and use their savings,” LePage said in a written statement.
So, we now live in a country that is hellbent on surveilling and limiting the financial resources of poor people—but never asks the question of how much savings and other assets (from stocks to art) rich people have when it comes to paying taxes.
The New York Times has mapped the percentage of the U.S. population that still, two years into Obamacare, remains without health insurance.
The remaining uninsured are primarily in the South and the Southwest. They tend to be poor. They tend to live in Republican-leaning states. The rates of people without insurance in the Northeast and the upper Midwest have fallen into the single digits since the Affordable Care Act’s main provisions kicked in. But in many parts of the country, obtaining health insurance is still a problem for many Americans.
Here, for comparison, are some additional maps—starting with slave and free states in 1860, rates of poverty in 2011, and red and blue states in 2014:
Not surprisingly, our findings made many people uncomfortable. Some feared the study would be used to reinforce the notion that people remain in poverty because they are less capable than those with higher incomes.
As neuroscientists, we interpret the results very differently. We know that the brain is most malleable in the early years of life and that experiences during that time have lifelong effects on the mind. Work by social scientists such as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard University and Eldar Shafir at Princeton University has shown that poverty depletes parents’ cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for making everyday decisions about parenting. These parents are also at far greater risk for depression and anxiety — poverty’s “mental tax.” All of this has important implications for children.
When parents are distracted or depressed, family life is likely to be characterized by conflict and emotional withdrawal rather than nurturing and supportive relationships with children. Parents don’t talk and read to their kids as often and make less eye contact with them. This accumulation of stress in children’s lives has cascading effects on brain systems critical to learning, remembering and reasoning.
As a society we cannot stand by when millions of children are at risk for not reaching their full cognitive and academic potential.
But then, in the name of science (in particular, in the name of randomized trials), here’s what they propose:
That’s why I am part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning a large clinical trial in which 1,000 low-income mothers will be randomly assigned to receive either a large ($333) or small ($20) monthly income supplement for the first three years of their children’s lives. Periodic assessments of the children and their mothers will enable us to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning. . .
The political battles for major expansion of these types of programs are unlikely to be won until we can provide hard scientific proof of their effectiveness. Until then, we need to do all we can to support policies that offer our most vulnerable children the best chance of reaching their full potential.
I understand the desire to want to be able to produce and use “hard” numbers to intervene in public debate. I do it all the time on this blog.
However, we need to be concerned about attempts to use poor people—first in Third World countries, and now in the United States—as guinea pigs “to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.”
We can well imagine what the reaction would be if, in the name of science, we devised a large clinical trial in which 1,000 high-income mothers were randomly assigned to a large (say, $10,000) or small (say, $1,000) monthly income deduction in order to estimate the impact of these cash deductions on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.