Tag Archives: poverty

It’s Going To Get Uglier

Last weekend, my husband and I attended the Phoenix Theatre’s presentation of Sweat, a prize-winning play based upon an episode of union-busting and outsourcing that took place some years ago in Reading, Pennsylvania. As with all Phoenix productions, the acting was superb, and the set evocative. But it was the play’s message that really resonated.

As workers in the local factories lost their jobs, social bonds frayed. Self-esteem suffered. Longstanding interracial friendships surrendered to suspicions that promotions had been awarded on the basis of “diversity” rather than merit. As with all powerful art, the play illuminated a human truth: in times of economic and/or social uncertainty–especially when  livelihoods are threatened– people turn on each other.

Political scientists have varying explanations for the election of Donald Trump, but those explanations all include, to varying degrees, economic insecurity and racial resentment. A significant number of Americans are struggling to put food on the table. Automation is threatening the jobs of many others. The pace of social and technological change can seem dizzying. And rather than working to tackle these and other problems, the President and his henchmen are telling us to blame the Other: immigrants, Muslims, minorities.

A recent headline from the Guardian tells us that anti-Semitic incidents soared in 2017.

Antisemitic incidents in the US surged 57% in 2017, the Anti-Defamation League said on Tuesday, the largest year-on-year increase since the Jewish civil rights group began collecting data in 1979.

Close to 2,000 cases of harassment, vandalism and physical assault were recorded,

Another report tells us that we are in danger of reversing the civil rights advances of the last fifty years.

Civil rights gains of the past half-century have stalled or in some areas gone into reverse, according to a report marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Kerner Commission.

Child poverty has increased, schools have become resegregated and white supremacists are becoming emboldened and more violent, the study says…..

Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, told Tuesday’s conference at George Washington University: “We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for nearly a decade after the Kerner report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening. We are resegregating our cities and our schools, condemning millions of kids to inferior education and taking away their real possibility of getting out of poverty.”

Harris, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma and co-editor of the new report, added: “There are millions more poor people today than there were then. There’s greater child poverty; poverty’s harder to get out of. More poor people are in deep poverty than was true 50 years ago and income inequality is worse now and worsening.”

Last week, the Supreme Court heard a case that is very likely to eviscerate public-sector unions–the culmination of a decades-long, largely successful effort by the Koch brothers and their allies in the GOP to destroy workers’ ability to bargain. It is an effort that has gone hand-in-hand with their consistent and very effective attack on government programs that help needy Americans.

As Sweat vividly illustrated, poverty and powerlessness beget bigotry and social discord.

If voters don’t turn this country around in November, America will illustrate something else–Hobbes’ description of life outside society: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.






Normalizing Segregation

George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama,  is most remembered for his defiant opposition to school integration, and his statement “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Reading about his efforts today, we tend to assign him to the wrong side of history and dismiss him, but I’m beginning to worry  that his statement was more predictive than defiant.

A few days ago, I blogged about some illuminating, if troubling, research into the effects of geography on social attitudes. I’m only a few chapters into The Space Between Us, but it has already confirmed what most of thoughtful people realize: the more physically segregated different populations are, the more wary and distrustful of each other they are likely to be.

And let’s face it; America remains segregated. Especially when it comes to blacks and whites, we worship separately, we live in different city neighborhoods, and sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, our children still attend different schools. The institutional arrangements may have changed, but in far too many cases, the results have not.

A recent Brookings Institution report describes how the charter school movement–despite its best intentions–is accommodating itself to racial segregation.

Charter schools didn’t create segregation, but the charter school movement isn’t helping to end it either.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must never adjust ourselves to racial segregation,” he wasn’t suggesting that black kids need white kids and teachers in the classroom with them to learn. King was acutely aware that segregation sustains racial inequality in schools and other institutions. Education reform without an explicit attempt to dismantle the sources of inequality isn’t a moon shot toward justice; it is simply a maladjustment to injustice.

Figures available for the 2014-2015 school year disclose that over a thousand of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

In the all-charter district of New Orleans… virtually no (less than one percent) white students attend schools that have earned a “D” or “F” performance rating. But 77 percent of white students are enrolled in “A-” and “B-” rated schools, according to a new report by non-profit advocacy group Urban League of Louisiana. It is unthinkable that this situation would be tolerated if the students’ races were reversed. It is clear that segregation, and who gets a quality choice, matters.

In all fairness, the charters are simply replicating–rather than remedying–the separate but definitely not equal status of most public systems.

The average public school is 2.6 percent less white, 1.8 percent more black, 0.9 percent more Hispanic, and 0.3 percent more Asian than its surrounding neighborhood,” according to the study. No surprise there.

The segregated state of our schools helps maintain the inequitable funding that determines families’ educational options. When the government-backed Home Owner’s Loan Corporation developed color-coded maps to sort out who could receive mortgage lending, blacks who lived in the red sections of the map were not given loans. And of course, the most well-resourced schools just happen to be located in the most expensive neighborhoods.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they are actually disrupting school districts that were created to be discriminatory, and that their availability improves poor parents’ options. As the Brookings report concedes, providing children who live in segregated neighborhoods a quality education is an excellent goal (although as the research continues to show, it’s a goal as elusive for most charters as it is for too many public schools–charters offer no magic bullet).

Real reform will require us to pay attention to the sources of educational inequity–and that means addressing social ills like poverty and residential segregation. As the Brookings report put it,

In many cases, school district lines are the more potent Confederate monuments that we still need to take down.


A Poverty of Understanding

Pundits and scholars and public officials spend considerable time trying to determine the causes of poverty and advocating measures to alleviate it.

In contrast, they spend very little time examining public perceptions of those causes, and less still inquiring into the demographics of those holding very different opinions about the causes (and thus the cures) for poverty. But a recent survey did just that:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty; in comparison, only 29 percent of non-Christians attributed poverty to inadequate effort by the individual.

The survey found an even wider gulf between adherents of different Christian denominations: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances. Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claimed no particular affiliation responded– by an impressive margin of 65 to 31 percent– that difficult circumstances are more to blame for poverty than lack of effort.

This data is not just of academic interest; it is politically consequential. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

Although the Post’s article didn’t refer to it, these opinions reflect the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. Furthermore, although you could never be sure who the elect were, it was widely believed that earthly material success was a sign of God’s favor and signaled “elect” status. Whether or not this belief can fairly be attributed to Calvin himself, it was firmly ensconced in the Puritans’ popular understanding of the doctrine of predestination.

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by public policies and systemic influences.

These survey results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Doctors can’t decide what medicine to prescribe if they don’t know what ails you. Lawmakers can’t address economic disparities between the rich and the rest, or lessen the incidence of poverty, if they don’t understand the underlying reasons for economic hardship.

Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.



Me and Thee…

One of most persistent–and pernicious–beliefs about inequality is the conviction that people “deserve” financial success or failure. If you are poor, the logic goes, that probably reflects some poor choices you made along the way, or your unwillingness to work hard, or perhaps a lack of innate capacity.

America’s approach to poverty owes a lot to the Fifteenth-century English poor laws that made it illegal to “give alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those laws, and subsequent policy approaches, categorized poor folks either as “deserving” (the widow and orphan) and “undeserving” (the sturdy beggar); that framework is ultimately responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a bureaucracy devoted to ferreting out the “undeserving,” and a political reluctance to provide an adequate social safety net since it might inadvertently benefit undeserving folks.

The Guardian recently reported on a group of scholars who are researching the basis of our very human tendency to see our own misfortune as just that–misfortune–while attributing other people’s situations to their character flaws. They are studying how rich and poor people alike justify inequality.

What these academics are finding is that the American dream is being used to rationalize a national nightmare.

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

This belief is closely related to the myth that America is a meritocracy, and that with hard work, education and some “moxie,” anyone can get ahead. That perception was never really accurate (ask African-Americans or women), but America did once have much greater social mobility than it does today.

The research notes a widespread suspicion that “they” are abusing/misusing social welfare programs that “my” taxes support, and a corresponding resentment of “them.” (The article notes that this attitude was a prominent characteristic of Trump voters.)

Another aspect of this phenomenon is known as “actor-observer bias”. When we watch others, we tend to see them as being driven by intrinsic personality traits, while in our own case we know that, for example, we acted angrily because we’d just been fired, not because we’re naturally angry people….

In other words, other poor people are poor because they make bad choices – but if I’m poor, it’s because of an unfair system. As a result of this phenomenon, Pimpare says, poor people tend to be hardest on each other. He gives the example of a large literature in anthropology and sociology about women on welfare published since the 1980s. “It finds over and over again that some of nastiest things you ever hear about women on welfare come out of the mouths of women on welfare.”

Wealthier folks, of course, embrace the “deserving/undeserving” dichotomy because it justifies their more comfortable status.

The political consequences of this phenomenon are obvious: if even the people who stand to benefit most from a more equitable and generous safety net are convinced that it mainly rewards the non-deserving, we aren’t likely to see systemic reforms any time soon.

Breaking down these misconceptions won’t be easy, either, because the research underlines the importance of human contact. As we have learned with racial and religious stereotyping, integration and interaction are powerful weapons against demonization.

Intimate contact – such as the experience of teaching in the inner city, mentoring, other types of services that allow people to connect despite class difference – builds empathy. The more you engage with with people unlike you and learn about their lives and stories, the harder it is to see them as stereotypes or to dismiss their challenges as trivial.

In a society characterized by significant inequality, exclusionary zoning, gated communities and our voluntary segregation into enclaves inhabited by the like-minded–what Bill Bishop has dubbed “the Big Sort”–it is going to be very difficult to encourage that “intimate contact.”

“Those People”

Most of us have been in conversations that included someone’s dismissive reference to “those people.”

When I was growing up in Anderson, Indiana (with exactly 30 Jewish families in the whole town), the term was often applied to Jews. It was also–and remains–a favored euphemism when race is being discussed by people who don’t like to think of themselves as racists; they just substitute “those people” for the “n” word when discussing the “lower orders.”

“Those people” is also a term frequently applied to the growing number of poor Americans. And it is particularly harmful when used in the context of economic policy. “Those people” wouldn’t need health care if they didn’t eat junk foods and fail to exercise; “those people” wouldn’t need social welfare programs if they weren’t lazy; any benefits provided to “those people” must be closely monitored, because they will use food stamps for candy and/or booze…”Those people” are irresponsible.

Facts and evidence are inconvenient things. Most poor people, according to overwhelming evidence, work 40 or more hours a week. Most recipients of food stamps use them to buy food. And there is growing evidence that needy folks are anything but irresponsible when they are given cash in lieu of benefit programs that are strictly “monitored.”

A recent study conducted by the Roosevelt Institute describes that evidence.

Providing cash directly to individuals has often been met with criticism, suspicion, and fear: the thinking goes that people who need financial assistance are not to be trusted, as their financial position reflects a moral failing rather than a societal one. These objections to cash transfer programs are rooted more in myth than empirical evidence. As the debate about a universal basic income gains prominence, it is important to set the record straight about the behavioral effects of unconditional cash assistance.

In this evidence review, we explore how unconditional cash transfers affected the behavior of recipients in three major natural experiments. While the amounts dispersed and time periods were distinct in each experiment, each provided money without set conditions and without a means test. We synthesize data for the following outcomes: consumption; labor force participation (employment, hours worked, and earnings); education; health; and other social outcomes, such as marriage or fertility choices. Each of these programs shares different components of a universal basic income (UBI), a cash transfer that everyone within a geographic/political territory receives on a regular basis with no conditions on a long-term basis. By understanding the effects of these programs, we can generate answers to how an unconditional cash transfer program might affect recipients in the future.

We may well be transitioning to an economy that simply cannot provide jobs for those who want them. Automation, as I’ve previously noted, is rapidly making many jobs obsolete. Changes in the way we purchase items–especially consumer goods– is inexorably reducing the number of workers in retail occupations.

The transformation of the economic landscape is accelerating, and it is a huge challenge–one which we ignore at our peril.

A UBI–a guaranteed basic income– may or may not be a viable approach to the dislocations to come. But continuing to sneer at the behavior of “those people” and dismissing emerging evidence of the utility of new social welfare proposals is clearly less viable.

A lot of the people who use the phrase aren’t all that far from becoming one of “those people” themselves.