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Monday, September 17, 2012

'What Poverty Means: Beyond the Antiseptic Numbers'

Tim Taylor quotes Ralph Smith, senior vice-president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation commenting on recent data on poverty:

... There’s an antiseptic quality about the charts and graphs and the PowerPoint that feels to me as if it misses the issue and misses the reality of the lives of the people and the families about whom we speak. ...  I just can’t get to the point where I’m so captured by the data that I miss what these numbers mean for the lives and futures of the families about whom we speak, about the material conditions in which they live, about the aspirations they could hold onto for their kids and for the next generation.

And I will confess a discomfort as I think about the one million children who despite these not-quite-so-bad numbers will be born into poverty next year. One million new entrants into poverty, and what we can predict now. And what we can certify on the day they are born is that more than 50 percent of them will spend half their childhoods in poverty. Twenty-nine percent of them will live in high poverty communities. Ten percent of them will be born low birth weight, a key indicator of cognitive delays and problems in school. Only 60 percent of them will have access to health care that meets the criteria for having a medical home. By age three, fewer than 75 percent of them will be in good or excellent health, and they’ll be three times more likely than their more affluent peers to have elevated blood lead levels.

More than 50 percent of them will not be enrolled in pre-school programs and by the time they enter kindergarten, most of them will test 12 to 14 months below the national norms in language and pre-reading skills. Nearly 50 percent of them will start first grade already two years behind their peers. During the early grades, these children are more likely to miss more than 20 days of school every year starting with kindergarten, and that record of chronic absence will be three times that of their peers. When tested in fourth grade, 80 percent of these children will score below proficient in reading and math. We know now that 22 percent of them will not graduate from high school, and that number rises to 32 percent for those who spend more half of their childhood in poverty. And to no one’s surprise, these sad statistics and deplorable data get even worse for children of color and children who live in communities of concentrated poverty. ...

... it has been remarkable to me during the last few years of sustained high unemployment and families under stress, how much our national political discussion has focused on the merits of different tax levels for those with high incomes, and how little our national political discussion has focused in any concrete way on how to assist the poor, and in particular on how to alter the trajectory of life for children living in poverty.

Well, there has been some discussion -- the poor have been called moochers, implicitly or explicitly, by Republicans. And there has been even more dog-whistling about how Romney and Ryan, if elected, will stop transferring income from the good and wonderful people who earned it to those lousy no-good poor who sit around all day trying to figure out how to get their hands on more of the worthy people's money. I mean really, these people should just borrow money from their families, or better have it given to them as a way to avoid taxes, and use it to go to college or open up a business of some sort -- private equity perhaps.

Thomas Edsall with more of what poverty is like "beyond the antiseptic numbers," and the political environment that works against finding ways to help:

Is Poverty a Kind of Robbery?, by Thomas Edsall, Commentary, NY Times: In her presentation on Sept. 7 at a symposium on inequality at Yale, Alice Goffman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, talked about the winter of 2011-2012, which she spent living in Detroit among the very poor. Goffman described some of the effects of extreme poverty by quoting the words of a Detroit resident to whom she gave the pseudonym “Marqueta”:

Your fingers get slow, you know, your whole body slows down. You can’t really do much, you try to put a good face on for the kids, but when they leave you just keep still, keep the covers around you. Almost like you kind of fold into the floor. Like you’re just waiting it out. You don’t really think about too much.… November your stomach is crying at you but by December you know, you start to just shut down…. Around 3 you get up for the kids. Put the space heaters, so they come home and it’s warm in here.

... Underneath the statistics, hidden behind the desolation of the poor in the poorest big city in the United States, lies one of most intractable political dilemmas of our era: Can the Democratic party, the party of the left, address issues of poverty and want in today’s political environment? For example, can they talk about hunger? ...

Can Democrats at least stop the cutbacks, i.e. stop Republicans from cutting social services even further in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy?:

Looked at through the calculus of contemporary partisan politics, the U.S.D.A. data demonstrates that in 2011 low food security was a problem for just under one in eight whites — a matter of concern but for many white voters, a virtually invisible issue. Very low food security affects the lives of only one in 24 whites.
For African Americans, low food security is a problem affecting one in four, and one in ten experience very low food security. The percentage of Hispanics who experience low food security is higher than the percentage of blacks, although the percentage of Hispanics suffering very low food security is slightly lower.


Democrats have concluded that getting enough votes on Nov. 6 precludes taking policy positions that alienate middle-class whites. In practice this means that on the campaign trail there is an absence of explicit references to the poor — and we didn’t hear much about them at the Democratic National Convention either.
Republicans, in turn, see taking a decisive majority of white votes as their best chance of winning the presidency. The 2012 electorate is likely to be 72% white, according to a number of analyses. In this scenario, Republicans need to get at least 62 percent of the white vote to win, and Democrats need to get 38 percent or more of the white vote.

Update: Via Brad DeLong, Romney explains why he sees no reason to worry about people who rely upon government services (i.e. the people he sees as "moochers"):

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…. These are people who pay no income tax…. [M]y job is is not to worry about those people ...

    Posted by on Monday, September 17, 2012 at 12:57 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (19)


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