Monday, January 13, 2014

Moralizing About the Poor

Homeless man using cell phone to ask his heroin dealer if he accepts aluminum cans.

Generally, we invite danger, intellectually, when we moralize. That doesn't stop us from doing it -- even I, a dedicated humanist, do it regularly -- and it often doesn't serve us or our viewpoints. Conservatives, with their religious underpinnings, do it more frequently. Liberals often disguise it. Libertarians claim they don't, though they do it in spades cloaked by their Randian amoralism. I, me, mine is as moral a statement as one can make.

Faux centrist journalists are the worst. They pretend to be even-handed, then moralize their asses off after the feign neutrality. A consistent case in point is WaPo's Robert Samuelson, the paper's economics columnist. He attempts to play the academician until it's time to head back to divinity school. His latest piece pretends, as centrists are wont to do, that we've both won and lost the war on poverty. First he says:
We won in the sense that programs for the poor have dramatically reduced hardship and kept millions from destitution. To those who think that Washington mainly serves “fat cats,” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says: Look at the numbers. In 2011, he estimates, federal spending dedicated to the poor averaged $13,000 for every person below the federal poverty line, now $23,000 for a family of four.
Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office reports that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, spending on the largest “means-tested” programs (eligibility set by low income) increased from $55 billion in 1972 to $588 billion in 2012. Most of these programs — including Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and Pell college grants — didn’t exist in 1964. They represent a sixth of federal spending and 4 percent of the economy (gross domestic product), up from 1 percent in 1972. Even this significantly understates spending on the poor, because it omits Social Security and Medicare benefits, which also go to the non-poor.
...People at the bottom aren’t well-off, but they’re better off than they once were. Among the official poor, half have computers, 43 percent have central air conditioning and 36 percent have dishwashers, report Meyer and Sullivan. These advances are especially impressive because the massive immigration of unskilled Hispanic workers inflated the ranks of the poor. From 1990 to 2007, the entire increase in official poverty was among Hispanics.
Samuelson pulls an all-too-common bit of trickery in the piece: he sets the bar for progress at 15 percent -- the 1982 level -- then points out that it was 15 percent in 2010. Johnson launched the war on poverty in early 1964, when the poverty level was at 19 percent, an improvement from 22 percent in 1959. It fell to 11 percent in 1974 and has never risen above 15 percent since.

So, sorry, Samuelson, no flim-flam from you. Poverty went from 19 to 11 back no higher than 15 percent. Not great but good. Also, Samuelson points out that, with all the aid that's not put into the official figures -- non-cash transfers like food stamps and free or reduced lunches -- studies show that the real poverty figure should be more like 5 percent. I'm not sure I buy that, but fine. It supports my point.

Just for comparison, look to Dylan Matthews with charts, and Matthew Yglesias who supports Samuelson's upbeat view about the war on poverty.

So far, we have Samuelson agreeing that since the war on poverty, we may have lowered poverty from 19 to 5 percent. So which part of the war have we lost? Now time for the moralizing:
Worse, the breakdown of marriage and spread of single-parent households suggest that poverty may grow. From 1963 to 2012, the share of families with children under 18 headed by a single parent tripled to 32 percent. It’s 26 percent among whites, 34 percent among Hispanics and 59 percent among African Americans. Just why is murky. Low-income men may flunk as attractive marriage mates. Or, “women can live independently more easily rather than put up with less satisfactory marriages,” as Brookings’s Isabel Sawhill says. Regardless of the causes and despite many exceptions, children in single-parent households face a harder future. They’re more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant before age 20 or be unemployed. Poverty becomes self-perpetuating.
The War on Poverty’s success at strengthening the social safety net — a boon in the Great Recession — should not obscure its failure as an engine of self-improvement. Government is fairly good at handing out money; it’s less good at changing behavior. The two roles intersect. If the safety net is too generous, it will weaken work incentives. If it’s too stingy, it will condone suffering. This tale of two wars has left the fight against poverty in a costly and unsatisfying stalemate.
 Here's Samuelson at his classic best: If we don't kick the poors -- as Atrios says -- then they'll just have single-mother babies, take their food stamps and their Obama phones and their welfare and be poor forever.

Look at that line, "women can live independently more easily rather than put up with less satisfactory marriages." Now let's parse with its inverse: "Women should live dependent in unsatisfactory marriages."

Another way of saying that is divorce is for people who can afford it, as in it's the province of wealthier people. You poors, suck it up and suffer, for moral reasons.

Or, in spite of Samuelson's inept moralizing -- yes, I mean inept moralizing -- we once again have Matthew Yglesias to the rescue:
Marriage is great. And it is true that a household with two adult members in it is much less likely to be poor than a household with one adult member. But even though conservatives say this a lot, I'm sometimes not sure that conservatives understand exactly why this is.
If you look up the Federal Poverty Guidelines you'll see that the way it works is that one person is poor if he or she earns less than $11,490. But due to household economies of scale, the FPG says that for two people to be non-poor they need to make $15,510 not $22,980. Indeed, the poverty line for a family of three is only $19,530—less than double the poverty line for one. Basically poverty is $11,490 for the first person plus $4,020 for each additional person.
So imagine a single mom earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. She's got $14,500 a year in income which leaves her and her daughter below the poverty line. Now she meets another single mom who's in the exact same financial situation. The two of them fall in love, and since they live in an enlightened state they are able to get married. Now instead of two separate two-person households each earning $14,500 and being poor we have a single four-person household earning $29,000, which is well above the poverty line for four. They could even adopt a fifth child and still not be poor. Which is to say that marriage "lifts" families out of poverty not by increasing their incomes but by reducing what the federal government assumes their expenses to be.
Samuelson's math is this:
poverty + state help - moral failings = zero progress 4ever
My equation is:
poverty + minimal state help - paying attention to moralizing + Obama phones! = barely scraping by
I agree. It's no joke.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's yacht as compared with 43% of poor
people having air conditioning. Those selfish fucking poor!

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