Monday, July 7, 2014

What is poverty in the US?

Article: Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?

One of the key points in the article is that Americans confuse "poverty" (which has a political definition) with destitution. Very few people in the US are actually destitute. And most of those in poverty are as well off as the middle classes in Europe.
Abstract: For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
The article:  What is poverty in the US today?
The authors of the article make a distinction between poverty and destitution. Poverty is, essentially, an arbitrary line, a political construct. Destitution is what most people think the word poverty means, but is not what our political definitions of poverty mean.
Although the public equates poverty with physical deprivation, the overwhelming majority of poor households do not experience any form of physical deprivation. Some 70 percent of poor households report that during the course of the past year, they were able to meet “all essential expenses,” including mortgage, rent, utility bills, and important medical care. 
It is widely supposed that the poor are unable to obtain medical care, but in reality, only 13 percent of poor households report that a family member needed to go to a doctor or hospital at some point in the prior year but was unable because the family could not afford the cost.
There is a trope on the right: in 1964 we declared war on poverty. Poverty won.

In reality, true poverty, Dickensian poverty, destitution, has been mostly defeated. And a significant amount of what is left is due to appallingly bad choices (drug and alcohol addiction) or due to psychopathology (or both). 

The Vision of the Anointed
I am currently reading The Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell.

One of the oft repeated points he makes in Chapter 3 ("By the Numbers") is how the intelligentsia (the "Anointed") in the US grab "aha" statistics to make a case.

He differentiates between data/facts on one hand, and evidence on the other. While data can be evidence, evidence is usually a broader look at all the data, and involves a testable hypothesis. That is, if a government policy is put into effect, then an hypothesis about what the policy will accomplish can be used to predict which evidence will show the success or failure of a policy.

One can always find an "aha" to support a policy: facts, statistics, data, and/or anecdotes.

He also makes a point about those who are in the lowest income bracket. On page 44 he notes (and footnotes) that 80% of those in poverty in 1979 where not there in 1988. About the same number were in poverty, by only 20% of these were in poverty in both 1979 and in 1988.

People in the US move into and out of various income brackets during their life times. A recent college graduate who is doing an AmeriCorps internship may be receiving food stamps and be in poverty. It is unlikely that he or she will there in 10 years. A professional in the last 5 years of his/her working life maybe in the top 5% bracket, but no longer be in the top 20% upon retiring. A family may be doing well when both parents are working, but in the lowest 20% if one is laid off and cannot find work for a year or two. Some members of a family in the middle 20% bracket may end up in the lowest 20% after a divorce.

For the last 20 years of her life, my mother lived in "poverty."  She had a small income from CD's originally set up by my father before his death. She had a small social security check (small for a variety of reasons).

She also owned her own home (with A/C), a car, 2 fridges, a microwave, a dishwasher, and two TV's (both with cable). She did not want a music system; she would listen to TV-embargoed baseball games on a boombox. She lived in a retirement community, and therefore paid a homeowner's fee to take care of the house's exterior including the roof, the lawn, and the trash disposal.

Yet, because her income was so small, she was living in poverty.

(She refused to get food stamps; those were for 'poor people.')

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