Thursday, January 25, 2018

America's Extreme Poverty

From Professor Angus Deaton, at the New York Times, "The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem":

You might think that the kind of extreme poverty that would concern a global organization like the United Nations has long vanished in this country. Yet the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, recently made and reported on an investigative tour of the United States.

Surely no one in the United States today is as poor as a poor person in Ethiopia or Nepal? As it happens, making such comparisons has recently become much easier. The World Bank decided in October to include high-income countries in its global estimates of people living in poverty. We can now make direct comparisons between the United States and poor countries.

Properly interpreted, the numbers suggest that the United Nations has a point — and the United States has an urgent problem. They also suggest that we might rethink how we assist the poor through our own giving.

According to the World Bank, 769 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013; they are the world’s very poorest. Of these, 3.2 million live in the United States, and 3.3 million in other high-income countries (most in Italy, Japan and Spain).

As striking as these numbers are, they miss a very important fact. There are necessities of life in rich, cold, urban and individualistic countries that are less needed in poor countries. The World Bank adjusts its poverty estimates for differences in prices across countries, but it ignores differences in needs.

An Indian villager spends little or nothing on housing, heat or child care, and a poor agricultural laborer in the tropics can get by with little clothing or transportation. Even in the United States, it is no accident that there are more homeless people sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles, with its warmer climate, than in New York.

The Oxford economist Robert Allen recently estimated needs-based absolute poverty lines for rich countries that are designed to match more accurately the $1.90 line for poor countries, and $4 a day is around the middle of his estimates. When we compare absolute poverty in the United States with absolute poverty in India, or other poor countries, we should be using $4 in the United States and $1.90 in India.

Once we do this, there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards. This is a small number compared with the one for India, for example, but it is more than in Sierra Leone (3.2 million) or Nepal (2.5 million), about the same as in Senegal (5.3 million) and only one-third less than in Angola (7.4 million). Pakistan (12.7 million) has twice as many poor people as the United States, and Ethiopia about four times as many.

This evidence supports on-the-ground observation in the United States. Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer have documented the daily horrors of life for the several million people in the United States who actually do live on $2 a day, in both urban and rural America. Matthew Desmond’s ethnography of Milwaukee explores the nightmare of finding urban shelter among the American poor.

It is hard to imagine poverty that is worse than this, anywhere in the world. Indeed, it is precisely the cost and difficulty of housing that makes for so much misery for so many Americans, and it is precisely these costs that are missed in the World Bank’s global counts.

Of course, people live longer and have healthier lives in rich countries. With only a few (and usually scandalous) exceptions, water is safe to drink, food is safe to eat, sanitation is universal, and some sort of medical care is available to everyone. Yet all these essentials of health are more likely to be lacking for poorer Americans. Even for the whole population, life expectancy in the United States is lower than we would expect given its national income, and there are places — the Mississippi Delta and much of Appalachia — where life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Beyond that, many Americans, especially whites with no more than a high school education, have seen worsening health: As my research with my wife, the Princeton economist Anne Case, has demonstrated, for this group life expectancy is falling; mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide are rising; and the long historical decline in mortality from heart disease has come to a halt...
Keep reading.

The other day, over at my local Ralph's supermarket on Culver and Walnut in Irvine, I saw a young woman with a baby panhandling for money in the parking lot. The baby was in a chest sling, sleeping; the woman was holding a sign, asking for money, which I couldn't read very well. I didn't even flinch. I walked over to her and asked if she and the baby had enough to eat. She said yes and held out her hand, showing some of the dollar bills folks had given her. I gave her a couple of bucks and urged her to get inside and get some food.

I remember when living in Santa Barbara, the staff at the local homeless mission told us not to give cash handouts to the city's downtown homeless people. The mission gave us food tickets that the homeless could use if they went down the organization's main shelter, which was on the south side of Highway 101. I guess a lot of panhandlers weren't buying food with the cash, but rather alcohol, drugs, or who knows what? But the beggars are persistent and ubiquitous, especially on State Street downtown. You want to help when you can, until you become so tired of the solicitations you give the beggars a wide berth (and I did that sometimes).

In any case, now I've been thinking about the homeless camp in Anaheim, and debating whether I should go over there myself to do a photo-blog. I'm not as motivated on this stuff as I used to be, although I'm just curious to check out the encampments. Many of the people there told the police they weren't moving, and it's a miles-long encampment, so I doubt we've heard the last of the news from that location.

And of course the homeless issue is just one facet of poverty in America; it's the most visible one, and gets a lot of media attention, especially given the current scale of the problem and the community backlash. As longtime readers will recall, I used to live in Fresno, and anyone who drives up Highway 99, and stops by and drives through some of the small migrant farming towns, which routinely have poverty and unemployment rates in the 30 and 40 percent range, knows what I'm talking about. It's hard out there. In California public policy is so bad it's a national disgrace. Remember, the so-called bullet train is scheduled for billions of dollars in cost overruns and may never be completed. How much money is being wasted on these high-theory policy programs, which mostly are focused on combating "climate change" as opposed to making any person's life better, to say nothing of relieving poverty? It makes me mad.

Note something else about Professor Deaton's essay: It reaffirms President Trump's nationalist focus of making our own country great again. We should be working in fact to help our own people more than we're helping other populations in other countries around the globe. Thinking about his findings, and his exhortations for citizens to give more, Deaton writes:
None of this means that we should close out “others” and look after only our own. International cooperation is vital to keeping our globe safe, commerce flowing and our planet habitable.

But it is time to stop thinking that only non-Americans are truly poor. Trade, migration and modern communications have given us networks of friends and associates in other countries. We owe them much, but the social contract with our fellow citizens at home brings unique rights and responsibilities that must sometimes take precedence, especially when they are as destitute as the world’s poorest people.
What to do?

Well, don't rely on the Democrats to make any serious efforts to combat poverty and improve economic performance at home. That's not the agenda of the "intersectional" left right now. This radical intersectionality finds its home among the coastal urban elites in big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. The poster child for the urban elitist mindset is California State Senator Scott Wiener, notorious for authoring legislation decriminalizing HIV-infected blood transfusions. He's also one of state's leaders behind the urban density movement, cosponsoring a recent bill seeking to change California's zoning laws to allow high-density and high-rise housing near urban public transportation centers. The rationale? To reduce "climate change," what else? If you build more units near transportation centers, less people will rely on private vehicles, with less pollution, so the theory goes. But the types of folks targeted by these policies are high-income tech- and cultural-sector workers who help drive up property values, already high property values, and keep low-income workers out and the poor down. Leftist policies are driving the unaffordable housing trends in the state. (See Berkeleyside for more, "Berkeley mayor on Wiener-Skinner housing bill: ‘A declaration of war against our neighborhoods’.")

You're going to have poverty. You're going to have it in a market economy. Those times when we've seen dramatic reductions in the poverty rate have been during periods of robust economic growth. We're currently seeing something of this right now, with the black unemployment rate falling to its historic low in December. (This happened during the late-1990s too, when the first dot com boom pushed national unemployment down to under 4 percent.) A rising tide lifts all boats, I heard somebody say.

Lots more could be added here, but I'll have to save more commentary for later.

RELATED: "A 'Mixed Bag'? Fifty Years Later and That's All to Be Said for 'War on Poverty'?"