Posts Tagged ‘poverty’


By the 1960s, it as known as “Bloody Lowndes”—because of the long history of lynchings and other forms of racial terrorism against the poor, majority-black population. Then, they began to fight back, with the assistance of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, forming the the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which was the first independent black political party in the county since Reconstruction.

But the county remained poor, with a median household income of only $25,876 and a poverty rate of 28.5 percent, with a still-declining population that has been mostly consigned to oblivion.

Lowndes has been largely forgotten—until yesterday, when a new study was published concerning the health of the county’s residents.

What is remarkable is that the study was published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and it documents a high incidence of hookworm, an infection that affects 430 million people worldwide, causing iron deficiency, impaired cognitive development, and stunting in children.

This was supposed to be a parasite found only in poor, Third World countries, with poor sanitation and a natural environment suitable for the hookworm life-cycle. It’s a public health problem that I vividly remember from all my years working in and teaching development economics, especially in Latin America.

But here we are in the United States—where hookworm had been rampant, especially in the deep south, in the earlier twentieth century. But by the 1980s public health experts assumed the parasite and the attendant public-health problems had disappeared altogether. However, the authors of the study found that more than one third (34.5 percent) of the participants tested positive for Necator americanus, the American species of hookworm.

Clearly, the authors understand the significance and implications of their study:

The discovery of these parasitic diseases within the United States begins to shift the idea behind global health. One concept is blue marble health, which reveals that many of the world’s neglected tropical diseases are paradoxically found in some of the wealthiest countries, especially in these small regions of extreme poverty.



Back in April, Raumplan and Cascina Cuccagna organized an exhibit for Milan Design Week titled “Capitalism is Over.” The basic argument was that, while capitalism may have worked in the first few decades of the postwar period, during the “Golden Age” of capitalism—when “the demand for products and everyday objects rose to never before attained summits”—since the late 1970s, growth has slowed down and “following the neoliberal theories, governments promoted policies that fostered the expansion of financial profits and lower wages.” Their example was Olivetti:

The historical Olivetti attitude to resilience and innovation suffered a fairly marked setback during the crises of the Seventies, which reduced investments in the production sector and initiated the financialized economy that today is reaching its full development. The growth of profits corresponded to a loss of identity and of the centrality of production’s contents, that became increasingly interchangeable. Although since the Eighties Olivetti’s revenues and number of employees has steadily increased, it is also clear that the progressive dematerialisation of its core business doomed the company. Olivetti gradually lost its productive and innovative bent and became essentially a financial investment vehicle.

Martin Kirk makes much the same argument in a recent Guardian column, supplemented by the idea that people—especially young people—have lost faith in capitalism.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they want to travel back in time and live in the USSR. For millennials especially, the binaries of capitalism v socialism, or capitalism v communism, are hollow and old-fashioned. Far more likely is that people are realizing – either consciously or at some gut level – that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has as its single goal turning natural and human resources into capital, and do so more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment.

Because that is what capitalism is all about; that’s the sum total of the plan. We can see it embodied in the imperative to increase GDP, everywhere, at an exponential rate, even though we know that GDP, on its own, does not reduce poverty or make people happier and healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time inequality, poverty and hunger have also risen.

As I have argued before (e.g., herehere, and here) capitalism has a real growth problem. The premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has many people looking beyond capitalism.

To be clear, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we would all be better off with less or no growth. That’s certainly true for our natural environment, in terms of issues such as global warming, pollution, and so on. Fewer resources would be extracted; less energy would be needed, thus lowering the level of greenhouse gasses; and, in general, less environmental damage might be caused by our economic activities.

My argument, however, is about the predominant economic system in the world today. It is capitalism that has a slow-growth problem. And that’s because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.

It is a premise in the sense that capitalists—the capitalist class as a whole, not necessarily individual capitalists in one enterprise or another—can collect and utilize for their own purposes more surplus-value when capitalism is growing—when productivity is high, when more commodities are being produced, when the economy as a whole is growing. There’s more surplus available, even if workers’ wages are rising, and each member of the capitalist class can get their aliquot share of that growing surplus.

So, growth is a problem both for capitalism—since, in its absence, it makes it difficult to extract more surplus—and for us—since, in the drive to create more growth, we are forced to suffer through more inequality, poverty, and destruction of the social and natural environment.

It’s time then, yes, to accept the idea that capitalism deserves to be placed in the dustbin of history—and, at the same time, to begin the process of imagining and creating an alternative set of economic and social institutions.


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poverty-ball-and-chain-940px  July 14, 2017

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Back in 2010, I warned about the widening and deepening of capitalist poverty in the United States.

The fact is (pdf), more poor people now live in the suburbs than in America’s big cities or rural areas. Suburbia is home to almost 16.4 million poor people, compared to 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas.

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Lake County, IL, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, is a case in point. Median household income in 2015 was $82,106, 45 percent higher than the national average.

At the same time, 9.6 percent of the Lake County population lived below the poverty line—more than 20 thousand of them children under the age of 17—and about 60 thousand people were forced to rely on food stamp benefits.

As Scott Allard explains,

Set beside Lake Michigan north of the city of Chicago, Lake County abounds with large single-family homes built mostly since 1970. Parks, swimming pools and recreational spaces dot the landscape. Commuter trains and toll roads ferry workers into Chicago, and back again. . .

Poverty problems in Lake County can be hidden from plain view. Many low-income families live in homes and neighbourhoods that appear very “middle class” on the surface – single-family homes with garages and cars in the driveway.

Closer inspection, however, reveals signs of poverty in all corners of the county. Many Lake County communities from all racial and ethnic groups are in need, and poverty rates in the older communities along Lake Michigan, such as Zion or Waukegan, more closely resemble those in the central city.

Pockets of concentrated poverty can be found in subdivisions of single-family homes, isolated apartment complexes and mobile home parks across the county. It also appears at the outer edges of Lake County in areas that might have been described as rural or recreational 30 or 40 years ago, before suburban sprawl brought in new residents and job-seekers. Several once-bustling strip malls are home to discount retailers and empty storefronts. It is not uncommon to see families at local grocery stores and supermarkets using food stamps or electronic benefit transfer cards to pay for part of their bill.

Rising suburban poverty is, of course, not confined to Lake County or the Chicago area. It can be found across the country, from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Back in the 1990s, researchers began to chronicle the diversity that exists across American suburbs, paying particular attention to older, declining suburbs—manufacturing-based, older industrial areas struggling with structural shifts and economic decline.

Now, however, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, the poverty landscape has broadened even further, encompassing all kinds of communities around the country. We’ve now moved well beyond the declining and at-risk suburbs chronicled in earlier research and are forced to confront the geographical widening of poverty, which continues to blight the nation’s cities and rural areas and is increasingly hidden in plain view in its suburbs.


We’ve long known there is a strong correlation between growing up in poverty and low academic achievement. Thus, for example, children living in poverty tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, lower grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to college.

Now we’re learning that that there is a correlation between poverty and children’s actual brain development.

According to Mike Mariani, the results of studying the “neurocognitive profile” of socioeconomic status and the developing brain are startling. For example, according to one study, kids from poorer, less-educated families tended to have thinner subregions of the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain strongly associated with executive functioning—than better-off kids. Moreover, according to the data from another study:

small increases in family income had a much larger impact on the brains of the poorest children than similar increases among wealthier children. And [Kimberly] Noble’s data also suggested that when a family falls below a certain basic level of income, brain growth drops off precipitously. Children from families making less than $25,000 suffered the most, with 6 percent less brain surface area than peers in families making $150,000 or more.

Noble is one of the pioneers in this area and, in order to go beyond correlation to causality, she’s now proposing a randomized controlled trial of giving some mothers a $333 monthly income supplement or others a $20 monthly income supplement.

I am all in favor of giving cash to members of poor households—as against, for example, taking over poor people’s lives by using brain science to promote more effective “executive function skills” such as “impulse control” and “mental flexibility” of the sort proposed by the Crittenton Women’s Union (pdf).

However, as I see it, there are two problems inherent in the way these new poverty-brain trials are proceeding.

First, the trial that Noble proposes is another instance of the kind of work we’re now seeing in development economics (associated especially with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), which conducts experiments on poor people. One “treatment” group is assigned randomly to receive an intervention, and the other is randomized to receive the “control” experience, enabling the investigators to assess the impact of one intervention or another—in this case, on brain development. In other words, poor people are being used as human guinea pigs to conduct scientific experiments.

What’s the alternative? Set up programs, with the participation of poor people, to analyze the causes and consequences of poverty and identify changes that need to be made in the system in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.

Second, the focus is on the brains of poor children, which in Noble’s language are “at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development to eventually become the three-pound wonder able to perform intellectual feats, whether composing symphonies or solving differential equations.”

What about the brains of rich children—why are they presumed to go through “the paces of normal development”? I’m thinking, for example, of the new psychological research on the “pathologies of the rich,” which involves studies of “social class as culture” and “sharing the marbles.” And, of course, there’s the infamous 2013 manslaughter trial of Ethan Couch, whose defense included a witness saying the teen was a product of “profoundly dysfunctional” parents who gave him too much and never taught him the consequences of his actions.

The issue here is not just the continued existence of obscene poverty, but also grotesque levels of inequality—which affect both poor and rich children, albeit in different ways. In my view, we need to be worried about an economic and social system that generates extreme levels of both poverty and inequality and that alters the brains of all children.

There’s nothing normal not just about the minds of children who are born into such a system, but the system itself.


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