Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poor Math by Stephen Pimpare

Official data will not get us far in evaluating or understanding the lived experience of poverty of poor Americans, which is why I have not chosen to privilege these measures in this book. The 'poverty line' is at best a rough estimate and was, at any rate, originally formulated in the 1960s by the Social Security Administration as a 'research tool that would inevitably understate poverty', 'not designed to be applied directly to an individual family with a specific problem' and based on the Department of Agriculture's estimate of a survival-level food budget designed for short-term emergencies.* The actual experience of poverty is best understood in relative terms which even Adam Smith recognized in Wealth of Nations and about which John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society:

" People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency [ a linen shirt in Adam Smith's example], and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment that they are indecent. They are degraded for, in the literal sense, they live outside the grades or categories which the community regards as acceptable."

The 1986 National Conference of Catholic Bishops made the same point in the report entitled "Economic Justice for All" which defined poverty not in terms of absolute money income but as the "denial of full participation in the economic, social and political life of society and an inability to influence decisions that affect one's life."

The effects of inequality are particularly pernicious: as British sociologist T.H. Marshall asked, "How can equality of citizenship coexist with capitalism, a system based on social class inequality?" Furthermore, one recent study of 129 countries found that economic inequality increases corruption ( the use of public power used for private gain)- it both legitimizes it and makes it easier to achieve- and that corruption, in turn exacerbates inequality. This dynamic is especially true in democratic societies and makes it clear that without economic equality, political inequality is in jeopardy." Similarly, as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis write:

"Economic inequality- particularly when overlaid with racial, ethnic, language and other differences- increases social distance, which in turn undermines the motivational basis for reaching out to those in need. Indeed, survey's consistently reveal that the support for those in need is stronger in societies whose before- tax and-transfer incomes are more equal."

Using measures that go beyond "the poverty line" established by Federal policy- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example- The National Economics and Social Rights Initiative goes so far as to identify an American "human rights crisis". While income inequality in America is higher than in any other advanced nation:

' Civil, political, social and cultural rights have all been attacked and undermined in the courts, legislatures, workplaces and streets. Economic and social rights in particular are virtually unrecognized in the United States. It has the highest rate of child poverty among industrialized nations, over 45 million people are without health insurance, over 36 million people suffer food insecurity, there is a shortfall of 5 million affordable housing units, 14% of households have critical housing needs, 20% of the population are functionally illiterate and its people work the longest hours in the industrialized world. Basic rights , "a standard of living adequate for health and well-being" , strictures that "no one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" and that children "shall be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment", for example, are routinely ignored in the United States.'

Even by the standards established by the Social Security Administration, poverty in America is widespread. And it is particularly useful in this regard to asked how many Americans were ever poor. Researchers Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl have done just that, and their findings strike at the heart of the claim that poverty is a state confined to a minority of Americans. By the time they reach the age of seventy-five 58.5 per cent of Americans will have been officially poor at least once, with an income at or below 100 per cent of the poverty line. Some 68 percent of Americans will survive on 125 per cent of the official standard, and fully three-quarters will have incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line. Worse, by age seventy- five, almost one third of Americans will be very poor, with incomes at only half the official poverty line. And, lest we conclude that these are isolated incidents of one-time hardship, some 30 percent of those who are poor at least once are poor for five years or more. For the majority poverty is an event, and for nearly a third, it's a durable condition.

Still, we misdiagnose the problem, for these are data about the entire population, and it's worse for particular groups of Americans. By the time they reach age seventy-five, for example, over 90 percent of African Americans can expect to have experienced poverty; for people with less than a high school education, it is over 75 percent. One third of our children can expect to live in poverty at some point. But if they are black, the number is 69.5 percent. If they are raised by a single mom with less than a high school diploma, 99.4 percent will be poor. And while we might make much, and rightly so, of the advances that Social Security has brought us, between age sixty and ninety over 40 percent of Americans will still be poor- by the official measures- at least once.

Hardships are part of our national experience, and poverty is not the exception, but the rule; it is not an anomaly confined to some marginal and marginalized population. In America, poverty is endemic.

*There have been significant structural changes in poverty since "the line" was established in the 60s. Housing and transportation costs have increased. Although the cost of food has declined, a lot of it is of dubious nutritional value** and in many areas for some commodities like fresh or even frozen fruit and vegetables, only conveniently available at small local markets at premium prices. Adequate time for food preparation is often difficult to come by etc. In addition, as the author points out and which may seem like an over obvious point, home ownership is not a sure indication that someone is not poor because it often amounts to a mountain of debt which consumes large proportions of one's income and, in the every expanding speculative markets driven by the profits to be gleaned by such instruments of investment as mortgage derivatives and credit default swaps, an insecure form of equity upon which to sustain a lifestyle above the poverty line.


  1. ** Perhaps this is a minor point but nutritional content labels of commercial food products rarely reflect the truth. They are generally determined by tests conducted on carefully chosen "runs" in the manufacturing process. Vitamins added to prepared foods are not necessarily utilized in the actual physiology of their consumers. Standards are broad. For instance, "zero trans fat" actually means under a certain specified percentage. Although this might not effect the poor so much, no distinction in the nutritional value of "organic" and "conventional" foods has ever been shown,and differences in the amount of questionable residues, additives and fillers allowed is a matter of specific kind and degree based on hearsay and custom.

  2. A People's History of Poverty in America" by Stephen Pimpare; The New Press, 2008

    There are now 750,000 people employed in American prisons; this would make the prison industry the second-largest employer in the nation if it were counted among the Fortune 500. Because our prison population is disproportionately black and Hispanic, so too are convict laborers, just as they historically have been. They are paid as little as 20 cents an hour, making some of them cheaper than the sweatshop labor in Mexico or Indonesia. An enormous range of American companies have used prison labor, including Lexus, Boeing, Honda, Konica, Microsoft, TWA, Toys 'R' US, IBM, Dell, AT&T, Starbucks, Nintendo and Victoria's Secret. So slavery, indentured servitude and convict labor are not just a feature of the American past. They are probably less productive than "free" labor- whose wages they drive down- but for some, like Bill Gates whose Foundation advocates a 'healthy and productive life for all', the bargain is apparently well worth it.