Posts Tagged ‘poverty’


Last month, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (whose important work I have written about before), issued a tweet about the new poverty and healthcare numbers in the United States along with a challenge to the administration of Donald Trump (which in June decided to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council after Alston issued a report on his 2017 mission to the United States).

The numbers for 2017 are indeed stupefying: more than 45 million Americans (13.9 percent of the population) were poor (according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure*), while 28.5 million (or 8.8 percent) did not have health insurance at any point during the year.

But the situation in the United States is even worse than widespread poverty and lack of access to decent healthcare. It’s high economic inequality, which according to a new report in Scientific American “negatively impacts nearly every aspect of human well-being—as well as the health of the biosphere.”

As Robert Sapolsky (unfortunately behind a paywall) explains, every step down the socioeconomic ladder, starting at the very top, is associated with worse health. Part of the problem, not surprisingly, stems from health risks (such as smoking and alcohol consumption) and protective factors (like health insurance and health-club memberships). But that’s only part of the explanation. But that’s only part of the explanation. The rest has to do with the “stressful psychosocial consequences” of low socioeconomic status.

while poverty is bad for your health, poverty amid plenty—inequality—can be worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

It’s not only bodies that suffer from inequality. The natural environment, too, is negatively affected by the large and growing gap between the tiny group at the top and everyone else. According to James Boyce (also behind a paywall), more inequality leads to more environmental degradation—because the people who benefit from using or abusing the environment are economically and politically more powerful than those who are harmed. Moreover, those at the bottom—with less economic and political power—end up “bearing a disproportionate share of the environmental injury.”

Social and institutional trust, too, decline with growing inequality. And, as Bo Rothstein explains, societies like that of the United States can get trapped in a “feedback loop of corruption, distrust and inequality.”

Voters may realize they would benefit from policies that reduce inequality, but their distrust of one another and of their institutions prevents the political system from acting in the way they would prefer.

But what are the economics behind the kind of degrading and destructive inequality we’ve been witnessing in the United States in recent decades? For that, Scientific American turned to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz for an explanation. Readers of this blog will be on familiar ground. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here), Stiglitz criticizes the “fictional narrative” of neoclassical economics, according to which everyone gets what they deserve through markets (which “may at one time have assuaged the guilt of those at the top and persuaded everyone else to accept this sorry state of affairs”), and offers an alternative explanation based on the shift from manufacturing to services (which in his view is a “winner-takes-all system”) and a political rewriting of the rules of economic game (in favor of large corporations, financial institutions, and pharmaceutical companies and against labor). So, for Stiglitz, the science of inequality is based on a set of power-related “market imperfections” that permit those at the top to engage in extracting rents (that is, in withdrawing “income from the national pie that is incommensurate with societal contribution”).

The major problem with Stiglitz’s “science” of economic inequality is that he fails to account for how the United States underwent a transition from less inequality (in the initial postwar period) to growing inequality (since the early 1980s). In order to accomplish that feat, he would need to look elsewhere, to the alternative science of exploitation.

While Stiglitz does mention exploitation at the beginning of his own account (with respect to American slavery), he then drops it from his approach in favor of rent extraction and market imperfections. If he’d followed his initial thrust, he might have been able to explain how—while New Deal reforms and World War II managed to engineer the shift from agriculture to manufacturing, reined in large corporations and Wall Street, and bolstered labor unions—what was kept intact was the ability of capital to appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by workers. Thus, American employers, however regulated, retained both the interest and the means to avoid and attempt to undo those regulations. And eventually they succeeded.

What is missing, then, from Stiglitz’s account is a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income. According to this science of exploitation or class, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there are not market imperfections such as monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: Big Pharma. In the case where giant pharmaceutical companies are able to sell the commodities they produce at a price greater than their value, they are able to appropriate surplus from their own workers and to receive a distribution of surplus from other companies, when they pay for the drugs covered in their health-care plans. As a result, the rate of profit for the pharmaceutical companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can change their healthcare plans or cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).**

The analysis could go on. My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over growing inequality in the United States—a theory that is missing from Stiglitz’s article and from Scientific American’s entire report on inequality, a science that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the obscene levels of inequality that are destroying nearly every aspect of human well-being including the natural environment in the United States today.

And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.


*The official rate was 12.3 percent, which means that 39.7 million Americans fell below the poverty line.

**This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.













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Special mention

The Siren Song of the Moderate  Kavanaugh


Toym Imao, “Desaparecidos (Memorializing Absence, Remembering the Disappeared)” (2015)*

In international human rights law, a “forced disappearance” occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization (or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization), followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.

The most infamous forced disappearances have occurred in Spain (during and after the Civil War), Chile (after the coup by General Pinochet in 1973), Argentina (during the so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983), and the United States (as part of the so-called War on Terror).

Now, Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) is attempting to carry out a forced disappearance of poverty.**

The aim of the Council’s report is to make the case for “expanding work requirements among non-disabled working-age adults in social welfare programs.”*** In order to do so, the authors of the report attempt to show that (1) there is a large pool of non-disabled  working-age adults who are currently beneficiaries of the three major non-cash welfare programs (Medicaid, food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing assistance) who can and should be put to work, (2) independence or self-sufficiency is undermined by participation in government anti-poverty programs, and (3) government assistance to the poor has become outmoded because poverty itself has virtually disappeared in the United States.

We’ve seen all these moves before. As Jim Tankersley and Margot Sanger-Katz explain, the numbers of adults who are beneficiaries of welfare programs but not working are likely exaggerated. For example:

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated this year that three-quarters of food stamp recipients work within a year of participating in the program. That report suggests that Americans often use assistance programs as bridges to a new job, after they have lost previous employment.

The administration’s numbers may be particularly exaggerated for Medicaid. Under the Affordable Care Act, many states expanded their Medicaid program in 2014 to include more childless adults whose incomes bring them close to the poverty line. But the report examines adults who were enrolled in Medicaid in 2013, before the expansion, when most adults who were signed up were either pregnant women, the parents of young children or adults with extremely low incomes.

According to the council, about 53 percent of adult, non-disabled Medicaid beneficiaries worked less than 20 hours a week. Using a different set of government data from 2017, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 62 percent of such people had full- or part-time jobs. Another 18 percent lived in a household with another working adult. Council officials say the data set they drew upon, while older, is a better measure than the one Kaiser used.

Then there’s the argument about the extent of poverty in the United States. While the government itself reports that poverty is still a large and persistent problem within the United States (since according to the official definition the poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7 percent, and the rate according to the Supplemental measure was 14 percent), the Council chooses to redefine poverty in terms of consumption (based on the work of, among others, Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan).


And, voilà, poverty is disappeared!****

Finally, they invoke the shibboleth that expanded work requirements respect and reinforce “independence” and the “dignity of work.”

Back in 2012, I suggested we need to contest the meaning of dependence:

In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

We can also deconstruct the term by turning it around: why is receiving non-cash benefits from the government a form of dependence but cash distributions of the surplus—to large corporations and wealthy individuals—supported by a wide variety of government programs, is not?

As for the so-called dignity of work, I can only repeat what I wrote just a couple of years ago: what advocates of getting people back to work

choose to overlook or ignore is that, in a world in which the majority of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else—in which, in short, labor power is a commodity—there’s no necessary honor or dignity in work. It’s a necessity, born of the fact that people need to earn an income to purchase commodities to sustain themselves and to pay off their debts. And the most likely way to earn that income is to sell their ability to work to a small number of other people, their employers, who in turn get to appropriate and do what they will with the profits.

As I see it, the attempt to disappear poverty is actually a thinly disguised effort to discipline and punish the poor and to convert everyone—poor and non-poor workers alike—into a giant machine for producing surplus for the benefit of a tiny group of employers and wealthy individuals.

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the mothers of Argentina’s “desaparecidos,” who 40 years later are challenging the government’s attempt to erase the memory of those terrible years and put the brakes on the continuation of trials. In the case of the poor working-class today in the United States, we need to make sure they and their deteriorating conditions of life are not disappeared and that a real anti-poverty program—a radical change in economic institutions—is enacted.


*The forty-three figures in the art installation by Toym Imao represent those left behind by victims of forced disappearance. Empty and hollow, each figure represents a year since Martial Law was declared in the Philippines. Instead of portraits and picture frames, the figures hold empty niches, signifying death, the lack of closure, the emptiness, the hollow feeling, and the gut-wrenching pain those left behind must deal with.

Absence remains an open wound. But despite it, the desaparecidos remain present in our hearts and minds. Despite efforts to eradicate their existence, they will never be forgotten.

**Kevin Hassett (Chair, from the American Enterprise Institute, who was appointed by Trump and approved by the Senate in a 81–16 vote on 12 September 2017), as well as Tomas Philipson and Richard Burkhauser (both appointed by Trump), are the members of the current Council of Economic Advisers.

***Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin offered up his state to approve work requirements for Medicaid benefits. Once Federal Judge James E. Boasberg rejected the Department of Health and Human Services’ approval of Kentucky’s plan, Bevin announced that he would deprive Medicaid patients of dental and vision benefits, effective immediately. The Trump administration has just revived its efforts to let et Kentucky compel hundreds of thousands of poor residents to work or prepare for jobs to qualify for Medicaid.

****This comes just after the United Nations Human Rights Council published the report by Philip Alston, its Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, according to whom

The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.


Special mention



Ambassador Nikki Haley’s decision last week to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is remarkable. The United States is the first nation in the body’s 12-year history to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the council while serving as a member.

Some have alleged that the timing of Haley’s decision is conspicuous. “The move,” read the second paragraph of a CNN report on Haley’s decision, “came down one day after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border as ‘unconscionable.’”

It’s true the Trump administration has been threatening to leave the Council for much of the past year. And the condemnation of the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents on the border was perhaps the last straw.

However, in my view, at least as important was a report last month by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on his mission to the United States late last year.*

Alston’s critique of the economic situation in the United States could not be more pointed.

The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.

For example, more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, with 18.5 million in extreme poverty and more than 5 million in conditions of absolute poverty.

unequal growth


The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. . .The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries. . .But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.

According to data compiled by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), between 1980 and 2014, the incomes of those at the top soared (the green bars in the chart above: 616 percent for the top 0.001 percent, 421 percent for the top 0.01 percent, 298 percent for the top 0.1 percent, and 194 percent for the top 1 percent), while the incomes of those in the bottom 90 percent barely rose (the rose-colored bars: 49 percent for the middle 40 percent and 21 percent for the bottom 50 percent).

Both trends—rising poverty and increasing inequality—have been going on for decades now. But, Alston is clear, the situation is only going to worsen under the current administration:

The new policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations; (b) pay for these partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; (c) undertake a radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor; (d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; (e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defence, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits; (g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and (h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites in poverty and near poverty.

What that means is a deterioration of human rights in the United States, because

International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living.

In other words, according to international law, economic rights are human rights. More specifically, worker rights are human rights—and workers are the ones who are suffering from the growth in poverty and the obscene levels of inequality in the United States. Their rights have been violated for decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the prospect looking forward—under Donald Trump and his Republican allies—is even bleaker.

The solution begins with the recognition that economic rights, especially worker rights, are in fact human rights. And the only way to uphold those rights is to radically transform the existing economic institutions, to give workers the right to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives.


*As it turns out, the day after I wrote this post Haley attacked Alston’s report on U.S. poverty:

Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, said she was “deeply disappointed” that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, had “categorically misstated the progress the United States has made in addressing poverty … in [his] biased reporting”. She added that in her view that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”


Special mention

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