Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

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Only in Britain

Posted: 24 January 2014 in Uncategorized
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Benefits Street is Britain’s latest contribution to poverty porn.

Fortunately, there’s also a parody: Tory Benefits Street.

And a much better tradition of representing the contradictions of life on the “dole” on the big screen, including my favorite: Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird.

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No one can deny the United States faces an epidemic of poverty.* Not when more than one in five American children live in poverty.

But some significant portion of the political and economic elite in the United States chooses to blame the poor for their plight and to deny that handing them cash will significantly improve their plight.

But they can’t simply ignore the results of studies like the one conducted by Jane Costello [ht: sm], an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School, after the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains decided to distribute the profits from their casino among its members.

Professor Costello wondered whether the extra money would change psychiatric outcomes among poor Cherokee families.

When the casino opened, Professor Costello had already been following 1,420 rural children in the area, a quarter of whom were Cherokee, for four years. That gave her a solid baseline measure. Roughly one-fifth of the rural non-Indians in her study lived in poverty, compared with more than half of the Cherokee. By 2001, when casino profits amounted to $6,000 per person yearly, the number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half.

The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems. But just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically. . .

A cash infusion in childhood seemed to lower the risk of problems in adulthood. That suggests that poverty makes people unwell, and that meaningful intervention is relatively simple.

I understand, the idea that cash infusions directly and dramatically improve the lot of the poor runs against the grain of a discourse according to which anything and everything should be done to make sure people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work for a wage in order to survive.

But that just means the members of the elite prefer to keep poor people dependent on them and their decisions about when and where to hire them, and to continue to ignore the “relatively simple” means whereby we can actually eliminate the epidemic of poverty and its consequences—on children and adults alike—in the United States.

*OK, not quite. There is a small group of neoclassical economists, the “poverty deniers,” determined to fiddle with the numbers in order to show that poor Americans are not all that poor.

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The other day over lunch, we discussed the issue of growing inequality and economic instability and whether or not the elite is aware of what is going on right now.* Do the members of the political and economic elite know about how dire conditions are for a large part of the population, and then choose not to do anything about it? Or, alternatively, are they so sheltered in their gated communities they are simply ignorant of the forces that are tearing this society apart?

This is the problem, then, of the “unknown knowns,” which Slavoj Žižek defines as “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Jonathan Gray [ht: ja] thinks the “acute fragility of our economic system” is one such unknown known, “one of many facts we all know but have decided not to think about.” And he considers this “resolute avoidance of unsettling facts” to be “a deep-seated human trait.”

I’m not convinced. While I don’t pretend to know what the members of the elite think (I’m not a member and I don’t spend time with them), their spokespeople may reveal something about what they’re thinking (or at least what they want to hear). David Brooks is one such example. When he explains away inequality by the “superstar effect” and blames poverty on the bad decisions and character problems of the poor, he is both acknowledging that inequality and poverty are problems to be reckoned with and attempting to defuse them so as to avoid a “primitive zero-sum mentality” that holds “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor.” Basically, what that means is that policy should focus on providing better opportunities for those at the bottom and, if they don’t take advantage of them—if they remain poor—it’s their own damn fault. There’s not much more that society—including and perhaps especially those at the top—can do for them. I prefer to call that deliberately unknowning a known.**

As for the general (non-elite) public, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what is going on, at least as revealed in recent surveys (e.g., by Gallup and Pew). They know there’s a growing gap between the rich and poor and that’s a bad thing for the society in which we live.

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And they know the nation’s economy is in bad shape, long after the official recovery was declared.

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I don’t see much evidence of unknown knowns there. By and large, people seem to be pretty aware of what is going on, in terms of both inequality and the acute fragility of our economic system.

More important, I don’t see any evidence of a deep-seated, shared human trait to avoid unsettling facts. What I see, instead, is a determined campaign to attempt to unknow what we full well know in order to forestall any kind of fundamental questioning of our current economic institutions.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to stop pretending and acknowledge what we do, in fact, know.

 

*I’ve been having lunch with a colleague and friend once a week, while school is in session, for more than 20 years.

**On the other hand, one way of interpreting the recent stridency about the problems of inequality and economic fragility on the part of some mainstream economists, such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, is that the members of the ruling class don’t appear to be willing to know what is known.

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American business interests have gone on the offensive against workers centers, the non-union organizations that have been targeting low-wage employers and industries in recent years. Apparently, the idea is to expose and challenge foundation support for the worker centers.

The United States Chamber of Commerce issued a detailed report in November criticizing what it calls “progressive activist foundations” that donate millions of dollars to these groups, which are often called worker centers. . .

The chamber questions not just the millions that foundations are giving worker centers but also the image that they run on a shoestring budget.

But worker center leaders say they need foundation funding to get off the ground and keep operating. Some foundations viewed the chamber’s report as a brushback pitch intended to discourage them from giving.

In a statement, the Ford Foundation said: “Growing numbers of workers are finding themselves in low-wage jobs with limited resources to support a family and move up the economic ladder. The foundation’s support for worker centers is one part of our effort to help more hard-working people climb out of poverty and achieve economic security.”

David Brooks throws his own brushback pitch this morning, in a column in which he attempts to confront the fact that “Suddenly the whole world is talking about income inequality” by accusing those who are attempting to think about the relationship between growing inequality and grinding poverty as introducing a “class conflict element” into the discussion.

Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.

Low-wage workers and their supporters actually trying to expose the insults and injuries meted out against those at the very bottom of the economic pyramid. Scholars and policymakers connecting the dots and analyzing the connection between grotesque levels of inequality and the growing class of impoverished citizens in the United States. The point is not mobility up through the ranks but instead an economic and social system that benefits only a tiny minority at the top.

The fact is, the brushback pitch is part of the game. (But, of course, it only works when the other side’s pitcher is able to retaliate.) We’ll have to see if liberals continue to stand in the batter’s box, looking for something good to hit, or if they move away from the plate and eventually strike out.

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Clearly, the War on Poverty hasn’t worked. Not when the official poverty rate has only fallen to 15 percent from 19 percent since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s landmark State of the Union address, and when in 2012 46 million Americans still lived in households that fell below the poverty line.*

But the problem is not that government tax and transfer programs don’t work. It’s that they simply can’t work, not when the U.S. economy continues to force people to try to survive in such miserable conditions.

Recent research (by both Liana Fox et al. and Christopher Wimer et al. [pdf]) on historical trends using the Supplemental Poverty Measure has shown that, in fact, government policies have played an important and growing role in reducing poverty. For example, the national poverty rate fell from about 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent today.

But their research also indicates how difficult it is to decrease, let alone eliminate, poverty—when nothing has been done to transform an economy that continues to generate such high levels of poverty. That’s the real war on war on poverty.

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The U.S. economy continues to force almost a third of Americans to try to survive on low private-sector jobs and incomes—which, in the absence of government programs, would leave them below the poverty line. If anything, things have gotten worse since the war on poverty was first declared: about a quarter of Americans would have been poor in 1967, and that number has climbed to over thirty percent in 2011.

The real reason the War on Poverty hasn’t worked is that U.S. capitalism continues to generate such high levels of poverty in the first place.

 

*Those numbers are only slightly modified by the Census Bureau’s Supplementary Poverty Measure [pdf], which indicates a poverty rate of 16 percent and a total poor population of 49.7 Americans.