Monday, October 01, 2007

Importing Poverty

The Washington Post had an article last month which provided an interesting perspective on a fairly stagnant poverty rate: Importing Poverty.

Thanks to Citizen Pamphleteer which has some additional commentary. I find the idea of a dynamic rather than stagnant poor to be appealing, and perhaps ideal if there truly is an irreducible minimum for poverty within a free system.

Kevin

10 comments:

MamasBoy said...

Kevin,

Interesting point and commentary. Thanks for sharing it. The drop in black poverty has been especially interesting to me.

MB

Sarah said...

Interesting for sure! I would probably be a little more excited about the prospect of overcoming poverty in America if "poverty" was defined by more realistic numbers. The "poverty line" is around $20,000 a year for a family of four?! You've got to be kidding!!

Who can live on that? The poor usually rent, and I don't see how 20K is enough to raise two kids with adequate nutrition, clothing and housing. A family of 4 who bring home $22K per month are living above the poverty line on a whopping $1,800 per month - half of which is required for housing. Not considering them 'poor' is crazy if you ask me...

Btw, that's not to say that this concept of importing poverty isn't an important story. Thanks for posting!

Kevin said...

Sarah,

Thanks for your comment and welcome to our blog. :)

$20k looks like a statistical average since location and other "cost of living" factors should be pertinent. Higher guidelines, probably derived from those statistics, seem to exist in making actual determinations. e.g. Westchester County, NY, Section 8 Rental Housing Vouchers.

Here are a few links I came across regarding the creation of the statistical poverty line:
(1) How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty
(2) FAQ on Poverty Guidelines and Poverty
(3) The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds

And here's a couple of quotes I found to be interesting:
"""The poverty thresholds were originally developed in 1963-1964 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration. Orshansky took the dollar costs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economy food plan for families of three or more persons and multiplied the costs by a factor of three.
[...]
Orshansky used a factor of three because the Agriculture Department’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey found that for families of three or more persons, the average dollar value of all food used during a week (both at home and away from home) accounted for about one third of their total money income after taxes.
"""

"""In her January 1965 article, Orshansky presented the poverty thresholds as a measure of income inadequacy, not of income adequacy — "if it is not possible to state unequivocally 'how much is enough,' it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on an average, is too little.""""

I imagine that welfare programs themselves should somehow factor into the determination of poverty, acting as a sort of feedback. e.g. an increase in welfare programs might correlate with an increase in the perceived gap between the subsidized and the free markets.

Kevin

Sarah said...

Thanks for those webpages. I note that the "poverty line" in America is used more as a statistical tool than a reflection of actual family needs. (To me, that shows that they are aware that this is an unlivable number). It still leaves me wondering, then why do they call it the "poverty line" as if persons are only "in poverty" below that number...

I find it interesting that as of 2004, Canada's "poverty line" for a family of four (living in a community of 30,000+) is $32,345 and $37,791 (if you live in a community of 500,000+), so they seem to take rural vs. city (and everything in between) into consideration. Prices in Canada average 24% above those in America. So, adjusting for this, the comparable poverty line for America would be around $24K. That's quite a difference between the two nations, especially when you consider that Canada has universal healthcare (and contrary to what the US media tells you, it's high quality. At least speaking from my own personal experience).

On the other hand, I'm glad to hear that higher guidelines apply in some social service areas (such as Westchester County).

Sarah said...

Hi again. Sorry if I'm coming across as antagonistic... I don't mean to argue with people I don't even know! :)
I'm a stay-at-home mom who doesn't get much opportunity for this kind of lively, stimulating discussion! So, I'm just enjoying the opportunity!

And sorry if I seem like a traitor... I'm a dual citizen (born in the USA, immigrated to Canada, and now I'm back in the US). I come from a strongly "right" leaning family, and after living in Canada and seeing alternatives at work and how they function, I'm sorting through it all...

Kevin said...

Sarah,

No worries. :) I don't learn as much if we agree all the time, so your respectfully opposing arguments and viewpoints are welcome. Actually, that's pretty close to our blog motto (see top and sidebar). Your concern is kind but you are doing fine.

And I certainly don't think you are a traitor for preferring aspects of Canada. Woefully misguided, sure, but not traitorous, eh. ;) Just kidding about the misguided part. I'm curious about any interesting details and comparisons you'd like to share.

My guess is that Canada and the U.S. might use slightly different methods for measuring poverty, different guidelines for using or presenting those measurements, and a different economic context and social system, so I'm not sure how much to emphasize the comparison.

Sarah wrote: "It still leaves me wondering, then why do they call it the "poverty line" as if persons are only "in poverty" below that number..."

I think the concept of "poverty" itself is not only relative to many factors but is also somewhat subjective, which was part of what I took from Orshansky's quote about income inadequacy vs. adequacy.

e.g. do we base it upon the minimum for survival? what does it mean if people are living below that minimum? How much beyond that minimum should be considered "poverty"? And, as you point out, if we draw the poverty line at X, is X+1 really that much different?

Sarah wrote: "On the other hand, I'm glad to hear that higher guidelines apply in some social service areas (such as Westchester County)."

I think Westchester County is typical of the pervasive federal program managed by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which considers each area's median income, fair market rents, etc.:

(1) section 8 rental voucher program
(2) Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet

Kevin

Sarah said...

I'm sure the US and Canada vary slightly in their methodology for arriving at a poverty line number. But, the contexts are quite similar in a lot of ways. The biggest difference is probably the population density, size of the market and such, which is part of the reason prices are higher in Canada. Obviously, another consequence is a smaller tax base (but, with WAY less national debt to service, and WAY less military spending - this isn't such a big issue).

I think part of what characterizes this conversation is that it is taking place from two different ways of approaching social issues. Yours is probably more effective, and probably more accurate because it is more technical, more detail-oriented. I tend to focus on big-picture themes, and overall trends. Just my nature, I guess.

One pronounced difference I see between the Canadian and American social/cultural contexts is the level of empathy vs. the degree of Social Darwinism. Canada as a nation seems more "feminine", more motherly in the sense that its people care about the well-being of the whole. America seems more masculine, more warrior-like. There are strengths and weaknesses to both, and if these two nations could get along better, we would probably make for a really dynamic partnership!

America seems to really embrace a Social Darwinistic attitude - a "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" mentality that views poverty as "your own damn fault." Sorry if that language is offensive, I just don't know how else to put it.

And so we tend to not value social programs. Rugged individualism is the highest value. Every man for himself. I used to embrace that culture (by default, really). But I'm not so sure anymore that it is all that compatible with following Jesus.

On the one hand, I don't think Canada is the ideal because I don't think the government should be the one responsible for caring for the marginalized of society. I believe that's the job of the church. But, the church in America certainly is failing at that task (the recent Oral Roberts university scandal is one of so many examples of excess). So if we're not doing it, somebody has to!

And... I'm happy about HUDs programs. Positive developments, for sure. And it's fair to say less impoverished people are renting (although I would be interested to find out the statistics on that). I wonder how these programs have changed the landscape. That would be an interesting study, wonder if anyone's done it?

All I'm saying is that I still think the US poverty line is a totally unlivable income and therefore still reflects "income inadequacy" (rather than some number below it).

For me, it is hard to reconcile the images of Hurricane Katrina (the bigger story there was all those thousands of people living in extreme poverty right here in America) with the reports that we are actually overcoming poverty, and merely importing it at this point. Like I said, big-picture themes. Not very detail-oriented...

MamasBoy said...

Hope folks don't mind me diving in here. I personally like the American ideal of pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps, though, I think it sometimes takes some level of community assistence to make the escape from poverty possible. Being in poverty is sometimes not a given persons fault, but staying in poverty for generations most often is. Everybody in this country has the opportunity to advance themselves. Unless one is hindered by severe health problems or some other circumstance outside one's control, there is not reason that one's children need to stay poor.

My grandfather was born in Canada and emigrated with his family to the US. When my great-grandfather died, his older brothers skipped town and left him to provide for the family. He had to drop out of high school and never got an education. My dad was born in a tent without running water. He had an outhouse for a latrine. However, he was able to graduate from high school and learn a trade. Thus, I was raised blue collar middle class. My sisters and I were all able to go to college and are living the typical middle class life, if not better than typical. We are all doing much better than my parents financially. I've known several immigrant families who live very poor (Russian, Mexican, Vietnamese), but are extremely happy to live here because of the tremendous opportunities that are available not just for themselves, but especially for their children. Perhaps I need to meet more Canadians/Europeans? The only person I know well who resides the developed non-US west, is my cousin who lives in Paris. It is far from obvious to me that living in France is better overall or even that that they have a higher standard of living, despite having my cousin has a two income family whose combined salary far exceeds the one income of my family.

This is not to say that the very poor do not need some extra help. My dad got a private school education through the generosity of his church. One of my favorite charities is a private school in inner city Cincinnati, because the public schools just don't cut it there and I've seen first hand the tremendous difference they are making. This also is not to say that our healthcare system doesn't need some work. Mark (who is hibernating as of late) has led some interesting discussions of potential health care reform ideas. However, I think that a nanny state is not the solution. Overall, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a great philosophy. It works!

As an aside, Sarah, this is a group blog with people from varying religions and political perspectives. We often disagree, but try to do so charitably. Welcome to the discussion. If we all agreed on everything, this would be a much more boring blog. The most lively and interesting discussion often comes from being challenged by people we disagree with. Kevin made a comment in a thread several months ago regarding circumcision in the context of voluntary mutilation/amputation that I'm still wrestling with. If everybody agreed with me on this blog, I'd be a much more ignorant person.

MB

Kevin said...

Thanks a bunch for joining in, MB. I was working on a post with a similar theme, though it was not nearly as eloquent as you have shared. Nevertheless, I'll try to collect and post some of those thoughts.

Kevin said...

Sarah,

Sorry for my delay in responding.

Sarah wrote: "America seems to really embrace a Social Darwinistic attitude - a "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" mentality that views poverty as "your own damn fault.""

I agree that individualism has been a hallmark of America, and I can see how, by emphasizing that ideal, we may be more prone to fault the individual even in cases where it might not be entirely appropriate.

Sarah wrote: "And so we tend to not value social programs. Rugged individualism is the highest value. Every man for himself. I used to embrace that culture (by default, really). But I'm not so sure anymore that it is all that compatible with following Jesus."

To me, individualism does not preclude charity, just as, synonymously, self-reliance does not preclude helping others. In fact, encouraging and supporting individualism may even be the ideal form of charity, along the lines of the old adage, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

I'd be interested to learn what ways you feel individualism is incompatible with following Jesus, as well as how you would define "the poor", both today and Biblically.

Sarah wrote: "On the one hand, I don't think Canada is the ideal because I don't think the government should be the one responsible for caring for the marginalized of society. I believe that's the job of the church."

That sounds reasonable, wherein we each compose "the church".

Sarah wrote: "But, the church in America certainly is failing at that task (the recent Oral Roberts university scandal is one of so many examples of excess). So if we're not doing it, somebody has to!"

I'm not sure the church in America is failing at that task, particularly as I defined the church previously. However, I do think there is a cultural divide within America between the private and government onus of charity. Consider Sweet Charity and Who Really Cares.

Sarah wrote: "All I'm saying is that I still think the US poverty line is a totally unlivable income and therefore still reflects "income inadequacy" (rather than some number below it)."

I think that agrees with the Oshansky quote: "if it is not possible to state unequivocally 'how much is enough,' it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on an average, is too little." So, it appears to be an average upper bound on what we can confidently assert is too little.

Sarah wrote: "For me, it is hard to reconcile the images of Hurricane Katrina (the bigger story there was all those thousands of people living in extreme poverty right here in America) with the reports that we are actually overcoming poverty, and merely importing it at this point. Like I said, big-picture themes. Not very detail-oriented..."

I wouldn't go so far as to say that we have overcome poverty and are now merely importing it; it's only one or two percentage points. I wonder if it's even possible to overcome poverty. However, I do think it bespeaks a positive mechanism that the U.S. has absorbed so many poor immigrants without exacerbating (and while possibly even improving) the poverty rate.

Hurricane Katrina was indeed a terrible disaster and recovery is still underway. In terms of images and "big-picture themes", I'm reminded of an article I read about the role of the media in Katrina which investigated their accuracy and the general sense they conveyed: Debunking the Myths of Hurricane Katrina: Special Report.

All of which is not to dismiss or ignore problems, but rather to advocate accuracy and identify and build upon successes.

Kevin