Posts Tagged ‘poverty’


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Back in 2010, when I first watched The Wire, I was struck by the fact that David Simon had done an amazing job narrativizing the ravages of capitalism without depicting capital itself.

Or perhaps better: capital is the abstract, ghostly presence of much of what transpires in the worlds of politics, drugs, policing, and international trade (through season 3). The capitalists themselves exist mostly just off-screen (except, perhaps, for short appearances by “The Greek”) but the logic of capital (its calculative rationality and homogenizing economistic project) can be felt throughout the various spheres of economic and social life that characterize life in Baltimore.

And so it is with the current situation in the real Baltimore: capital is the abstract, ghostly presence that has created a tinderbox of segregation, poverty, and unemployment that was lit on fire by the recent death of Freddie Gray.

What’s interesting, at least to me, is the fact that precisely that idea—of the specter of capital—that has surfaced in some of the recent commentary on the clashes between Baltimore’s citizens and the police.

So, we have Alyssa Rosenberg expressing her worries about our Wire-induced fatalism and then concluding that “The Greek and global capitalism will never die, but at least there will be Jameson at the bar.”

More seriously, there’s Baltimore Orioles Chief Operating Officer John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responding to local sports-radio broadcaster Brett Hollande and offering his own explanation of why people have taken to the streets:

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

OK, it’s not just the shipping of jobs to China and other “third-world dictatorships.” It’s also the decline of unions, the use of new worker-displacing technologies, the increasing importance of finance, and much more.

In other words, it’s the “whole damn system” that has created an economy of extraction for a tiny minority at the top and an economy of exclusion for a large portion of the working-class in Baltimore and across the United States. What we are witnessing, then, are the effects of capital that is operating in the background—in the real world just as in The Wire—just off-screen.



While relative calm has returned to the streets of Baltimore, because of the curfew, the underlying socioeconomic problems haven’t disappeared overnight.

Far from it. The neighborhood in which Freddie Gray was killed, Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, is profoundly segregated (97 percent black), poor (35.4 percent of households live in poverty, and 51.2 percent have incomes less than $25,000), and unemployed (at a rate of 24.2 percent).

As Jana Kasperkevic explains,

After the unrest in Baltimore is over, the clean-up might get rid of the debris, but the inequality will remain.


Special mention

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Special mention

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The United States does not collect health data by class.*

However, the recently released report from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project (which for the first time this year include a measure of county-level inequality, depicted in the map above), conducted by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, does give us some sense of the relationship between class and health outcomes in the United States.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Rates of children in poverty are more than twice as high in the unhealthiest counties in each state as they are in the healthiest counties. (The top performing counties in the United States, the 10 percent with the lowest rates of child poverty, have child poverty rates of less than 13 percent. The worst performing counties, the 10 percent with the highest rates of child poverty, have child poverty rates of at least 38 percent.)
  • Across the nation, rates of unemployment are 1.5 times as high in the least healthy counties of each state as they are in the healthiest counties. (The top performing counties in the United States have unemployment rates of 4.1 percent or lower. The worst performing counties for unemployment have unemployment rates of 10.7 percent or higher.)
  • The top performing counties in the United States have income inequality ratios of less than 3.7, while the worst performing counties have income inequality ratios of 5.4 or higher. (Within counties in the United States, the average—median—income inequality ratio of the 80th to the 20th percentile is 4.4. The income-inequality ratio in U.S. counties ranges from 2.6 to 9.6.)

Thus, as Margot Sanger-Katz explains,

The researchers measured inequality by comparing the number of people in a given place who earned above the 80th percentile in the county with the number of people earning less than the 20th percentile. Then they measured life expectancy using a custom measurement they developed — it counts the “potential life years lost” in each community by measuring all those who died before the age of 75, and the age at which they died. So someone who died at age 70 would have five years of potential life lost. Then they adjusted the numbers according to how old people were in the county, so counties with more old people wouldn’t look sicker than counties that were younger. The study looked at only the average life span and not that of higher-income versus lower-income residents.

For every one-point increase in the ratio between high and low earners in a county, there were about five years lost for every 1,000 people. That’s about the same difference they observed when a community’s smoking rate increased by 4 percent or its obesity rate rose by 3 percent. Researchers said that inequality effect persisted even when they compared communities of similar average income and racial composition.

The question we all need to ask then is, how many potential life years have been lost to the grotesque levels of inequality (and the conditions and consequences of growing inequality, such as poverty and unemployment) we have seen emerging in recent decades in the United States?


*In contrast to other countries, such as the United Kingdom (which has issued a series of reports over the years on the relationship between health and class, including the Acheson Report, fully titled the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report, in 1998).


According to the Century Foundation’s analysis of the latest Occupational Employment Statistics report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a quarter of U.S. workers are working full-time, year-round in occupations where they cannot expect to earn enough to keep a family of four above poverty.

The chart above shows median wages for the 30 lowest-paying occupations with over 250,000 employees, which collectively employ 31 million people nationally. All the occupations on the list have annual median wages that fall at or below the poverty level for a family of four ($24,250). At the very bottom are America’s 3.1 million food preparation workers, who earn just $18,410 annually. That’s $8.85 an hour.

The occupations with the largest employment in May 2014 were retail salespersons and cashiers. These two occupations combined made up nearly 6 percent of total U.S. employment, with employment levels of 4.6 million and 3.4 million, respectively. Of the 10 largest occupations (which accounted for 21 percent of total employment in May 2014), only registered nurses, with an annual median wage of $66,640, had an average wage above the U.S. all-occupations median of $34,540.

As the Century Foundation reminds us,

Many of these jobs are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. Many are commonplace, but that doesn’t make them dispensable. Rather, in our haste to dismiss basic as beneath us, we lose sight of the fact that what is basic is also fundamental, what is mundane is also essential. These jobs matter—they are the substance of simple pleasures, the foundation of daily joys—and they mean more to our interpersonal well-being than any amount of high-flying CEOs ever will. But by labeling its practitioners as “low skill,” we rationalize relegating them to near-poverty wages.

The stark facts collected by the BLS also remind us that, when large numbers of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work, the wages many U.S. workers receive force them and their families to live in or within striking distance of destitution.