Thanksgiving Break: Less Policy, More Personal

November 25, 2014

I feel I should write something relevant to the upcoming Thanksgiving Day. Yet the muse is silent — perhaps because she tends to strike when I’m pissed off about something, which is fairly often, as those of you who follow this blog know. Nevertheless ….

As I said four years ago, I have a great deal to be personally thankful for. Some, though not all of it stems from a choice I made many, many years ago. I chose to be born to parents who were comfortably middle-class — and to a mother whose father had actually done the Horatio Alger thing.

So we had economic security, which, as I noted yesterday, seems not all that common any more, especially for families with children. And I have economic security now in part because of what I’ve inherited.

My parents invested a lot in our education — some monetary, some not. My sibs and I were sent to a wonderful preschool. We were taken to museums, concerts, children’s theater performances and the like. We were read to every evening until we learned to read on our own.

And boy, were there a lot of spoken words in our house — at least as many, I guess, as the 2,150 or so an hour that supposedly help account for why children of professional parents do better in school than others. (My parents weren’t professionals, but they did talk a steady stream.)

We attended public schools, which were just okay. But my mother had the time, education and concern to help when teachers apparently couldn’t. I still recall how she enabled me to get the hang of algebra word problems, e.g., trains departing from opposite stations.

And I recall how my father showed me what was special about Gauguin’s paintings, using books of reproductions he’d managed to take with him when he left Germany just in the nick of time.

So I was admitted to the college I wanted to go to. I’m thankful for the donors who made my scholarship possible — and for the family friend who paid for my plane fares. And I’m thankful for what was then California state policy because my graduate education at a fine university cost me $75 a semester.

For all these reasons — and some sheer dumb luck — I’ve never lived in poverty. Never even had to go without anything I truly needed. I’m thankful for that. But it weighs on my mind because I understand that I’ve lived — and am living — a privileged life.

So I blog in the comfort of a home we own about people who don’t even have a room to themselves — or heat on this chilly day. People who are worrying about whether they’ll have enough to eat, rather than how they can fit any more food into a refrigerator that’s occupied by a turkey which seems much larger than when we bought it.

As a former President said, when confronted with an egregious income-based inequity, “[T]here are many things in life that are not fair.” We’ve got much more research supporting such inequities than we did then, including the lifelong unequal chances of children born to well-off and poor parents.

And it seems truer in some ways as well. We need only look at how much more income is flowing to the top 1% or at how little workers have gained from increasing productivity — so little that all but the highest-paid employees are making less, in real dollars, than they did at the outset of the Great Recession.

We know we could make life in this country fairer. More to the point, we know we could make life better for people who can, at best, barely get by day to day — and for their children, who could get something more like the start in life I had. But my heart sinks when I consider the near-term policy prospects, especially on Capitol Hill.

So I’m thankful for advocacy organizations that don’t despair, as I’m sometimes inclined to. I’m thankful for the research and analyses, the direct representation and the opportunities to collaborate and weigh in that they provide. And for their spirit, which lifts mine.

I’m thankful for the faith-based and other charitable organizations that tend to the basic needs of the underprivileged people in their communities — and for the other things they do to help them meet those needs.

As I think about our extensive nonprofit networks, I’m also thankful for the very privileged whose support helps make their good work possible — and for the many others who contribute what they can.

A last word of thanks to you who’ve indulged me in this excursion into the autobiographical mode. Back to the usual, as soon as we’ve settled into the post-holiday/pre-holiday routine. I expect I’ll find a lot to be pissed off about.

How Does DC Stack Up Against States?

September 18, 2014

A few additional factoids from the new Census Bureau figures — all reinforcing the acute income divide I’ve already remarked on.

On the one hand, the median income for households in the District was higher than the medians in all but four states. Neighboring Maryland had the highest — $72,483. The District’s was $4,911 lower.

On the other hand, only five states had higher poverty rates than the District. And the District tied with Alabama for the sixth highest child poverty rate. Pretty remarkable when you consider that Alabama had the fourth lowest median income.

DC Poverty Rate Rises to Nearly 19%

September 18, 2014

I was all set to write that the poverty rate for the District of Columbia dipped down last year, just as the official national rate had. But no, according to the just-released results of the American Community Survey.

The District’s poverty rate increased from 18.2% in 2012 to 18.9% in 2013,  Or so it seems. The increase is small enough increase to fall within the margin of error.*

Here’s more of what we’ve got, plus a few remarks here and there.

The Big Picture

The new poverty rate means that approximately 115,630 District residents lived on less than the very low applicable poverty threshold — just $23,624 for a two-parent, two-child family or about 26% of the family’s basic living costs in the D.C. area.

The rate is 2.5% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in. It is also 3.1% higher than the 2013 national rate.

The deep poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents living below half the applicable income threshold, was 10.3%. In other words, somewhat over 63,000 residents were devastatingly poor, especially when we consider the high costs of living in the District.

Young and Old

As in the past, the child poverty rate was much higher than the overall rate — 27.2%. This means that about 29,740 D.C. children were officially poor — well over half of them (16.2%) deeply so.

Both the total and the deep poverty rates for children were slightly higher than in 2012 — in both cases, by less than 1%. But they were considerably higher than in 2007, when the child poverty rate was 22.7% and the deep poverty rate for children 12%.

They were also both higher than the national rates. These, according to the ACS, were 22.2% and 9.9%.

Seniors had lower poverty and deep poverty rates — 17.5% and 4.5% respectively. These too, however, were higher than the nationwide rates. And a better poverty measure than the clunker the ACS uses would probably yield higher rates for seniors here in the District.

Non-Hispanic Whites v. Everybody Else

Race/ethnicity gaps in the District remain very wide. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was more than three and a half times greater than the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 28.7%, as compared to 7.7%.
  • For blacks, the deep poverty rate was 15.2%, while for non-Hispanic whites only 5.1%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 12.6% and the deep poverty rate 5.6%. These are markedly lower than the 2012 rates, unlike the others here.
  • Rates for Asians were 18.7% and 13.2% respectively.

We see similar disparities in median household income, i.e., the midpoint between the highest and the lowest.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $118,402.
  • For black households, the median income was less than a third of that — $38,124.
  • Hispanic and Asian households fell in between, with a median incomes of $50,861 and $63,281 respectively.

The non-Hispanic white household median was a whole lot higher here than nationwide, by nearly $60,720.  The medians for black and Hispanic households were higher too, but the dollar differences were much smaller, especially the former. The median for Asian households was lower — a surprise, since it was considerably higher in 2012.

Work and Education

We’re told that work is the solution to poverty. The ACS figures support this, but only up to a point.

In 2013, 46.5% of poor residents between the ages of 16 and 64 didn’t work at all. An additional 25.7% worked less than full time or intermittently.

But that still leaves nearly 8,380 working-age residents who were employed full-time, year round and still not earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty — or at least, not them and dependent family members.

It’s a fair guess that these are mostly residents who don’t have the formal education credentials that living-wage jobs here, as elsewhere, increasingly demand. This is probably also the case for many of the part-time and some-time employed.

What we do know is that roughly 44.5% of residents 25-64 years old who had less than a high school education were employed during 2013 — and only 54.2% with no more than that.

Not surprisingly then, the poverty rate for those 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 27% last year — and for those with less, 39.3%. By contrast, the poverty rate for those with at least a four-year college degree was just 5.4%.

(Yes, I know these shifting age brackets are frustrating.)

Income Inequality

There’s obviously a lot of wealth in the District — and a lot of poverty. We see this in the figures I’ve cited, but also in the fact that the average household income — $102,822 — is so much greater than the median.

While 15.3% of households had incomes under $15,000, 12% had incomes of at least $200,000 — the highest bracket the Census Bureau reports.

There’s nothing new about this divide, except for the specific numbers. Nor is it unique to the District, though the disparity here seems unusually high. Nothing new about that either.

Most experts — and advocates as well — view the growing income inequality in this country as a bad thing in and of itself. They also see negatives specifically for people at the low end of the income scale. Many of the same arguments would apply to the District.

Nearly 10,860 families in the District had annual incomes, including cash benefits of less than $10,000 last year. Surely we can do better, though doing it won’t be simple.

* All the ACS tables include the margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. In the interests of simplicity, I’m reporting both as given.

NOTE: I’ve revised several figures in this post because I’ve learned that I should use the ACS national figures for comparisons. I had originally used the Current Population Survey for these because that’s how I understood the Census Bureau advice.

Welfare Shifts to the “Deserving” Poor … and Not-So-Poor

May 27, 2014

The U.S. is spending considerably more on safety net programs than it did in the mid-1970s, but the poorest families — most of them headed by single mothers — are receiving less.

This is a key finding in the latest of several studies conducted by Professor Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University. He looked at spending the 15 largest “social safety net” programs between 1975 and 2007.

He traced payments from social insurance programs like Social Security for retirees and unemployment compensation and from means-tested programs, i.e. those that limit eligibility to people below a set income level.

Overall safety net spending in real dollars was 74% higher at the end of the period, but families in deep poverty, i.e., below half the federal poverty line, received 35% less than they did the year before Congress replaced welfare as we knew it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Well, we knew that TANF is a poor excuse for a safety net program — and in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ chart book shows.

Moffitt’s findings, however, do far more than confirm this. Basically, as he says, they show that long-standing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor “have grown sharper over the last 20 or 30 years.”

“The deserving are those who work, who are married or at least widowed, who have children and who are native born.”

The undeserving are the obverse, Moffitt contends, though I personally think the bans on safety net benefits for recent immigrants have other roots.

Quibble aside, what his data show isn’t merely declining support for the “undeserving” poor. We also see increasing support for famiies who aren’t poor — or even near-poor.

The shift reportedly means that a family of four earning $11,925 a year is probably getting less aid than the same-sized family earning $47,700 — 200% of the federal poverty line.

This is partly because the real-dollar value of TANF cash benefits has dropped so significantly, along with the percent of poor families served — about 43% fewer than in 1996.

At the same time, most of the fastest growing programs serve “specialized populations,” Moffitt says. These include Supplemental Security Income, which helps only lower-income people who are elderly, blind or severely disabled, i.e., those who qualify as deserving because we don’t expect them to work.

Otherwise, most of the fastest growing programs benefit families with at least one worker — the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Childless workers obviously don’t qualify for the latter at all. And their EITC benefit is piddling.

By contrast, a married couple with two children qualifies for a maximum $5,460 credit — and for phased-down credits until their adjusted gross income reaches $49,146.

The one exception, Moffitt notes, is SNAP (the food stamp program), which isn’t restricted to any “specialized population.” But it provides only about $5 per person per day, he says — a generous rounding up, according to CBPP data.

By and large, we see “rising support for those who work and declining support for those who do not, Moffitt says. “If you’re trying and not succeeding, the welfare system today gives you basically nothing.”

We’ve cut support to families without a breadwinner — and to single-mother families in particular — because of a “presumption that they have not taken personal responsibility for their situation,” he explains.

By these lights, earning is a mark of deserving — as is marrying (someone of the opposite sex) and staying married, no matter what.

Poverty betokens some character flaw — at the very least, a failure to try hard enough, as a majority of Republicans (and not they only) apparently believe.

Moffitt understandably believes it would be futile — perhaps counterproductive — to attack the work bias in our safety net programs. He mentions doing more for those who face the largest obstacles to work, e.g., lack of marketable skills and/or affordable child care.

But he also hopes “we could find ways to assist those families who are making an effort, but not succeeding.” Effort then becomes a market of deserving.

And who will decide who’s really trying?




Poverty and Income Inequality Don’t Just Happen

November 12, 2013

Now, here’s an interesting fact to chew over. If the wealth in this country were evenly distributed among adults, each of us would have $301,000.

By this measure, we’re not the wealthiest country in the world. That distinction goes to tiny Switzerland, according to the latest Global Wealth report from Credit Suisse.

But we’ve got, by far and away, the highest percent of millionaires (42%) — and an even larger share (46.5%) of all the people with more than $50 million in the 19 countries the Credit Suisse analysts could compile data far.

At the same time, we’ve got 15% of the population — 46.5 million people — so poor as to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

Blogger Matt Bruenig crunched some numbers and found that it would take $175.3 billion to lift every one of them out of poverty, as officially defined.

That may seem like a great deal of money. But it’s only a bit over 1% of the value of the goods and services our country produced last year — and according to my number-crunching, only about $3,770 per person.

Now, I don’t want to lend credibility to the troll who alleges that I’m a “commie terrorist,” but these numbers do get the mind churning.

On the one hand, the Credit Suisse figures underscore how unevenly wealth is distributed. On the other hand, Bruenig’s indicate how relatively little we’d have to redistribute to end poverty — well, not really, but at least according to the measure we use.

As Bruenig says, we have mechanisms to do this. We could, for example, expand the refundable Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. We could expand SNAP (the food stamp program), instead of arguing over how much to cut it.

We could, Bruenig adds, establish a “mild basic income and a negative income tax.” These aren’t radically leftist notions.

Economist Milton Friedman, whom no one would call a leftist, proposed a negative income tax back in 1962. As he described it, people would file tax returns and get a refund of sorts for some portion of however much their income fell below the threshold at which they would owe anything.

This ultimately became the basis for the EITC, but the tax credit helps only people who work and their dependents. And it does very little for parents who earn very little and for those who are childless, even if their earnings are fairly decent.

Though Friedman viewed the NIT as an alternative to existing welfare programs, it wouldn’t have to be. On the other hand, it could replace them if the refunds were big enough to pay for basic needs.

I know economists have concerns about disincentives to work — as, of course, do policymakers. Comfortable hammock and all that.

And perhaps there’s something to this, though I note that we don’t seem to have these concerns when the issue is what are effectively income supports for people who are already well-off, e.g., the various tax benefits to homeowners.

These alone would pay for more than half the cost of lifting everybody out of poverty, according to Joint Taxation Committee estimates that Bruenig cites.

The basic point here, which Bruenig makes well, is that poverty is a function of policies that distribute income unevenly, not a spontaneous phenomenon. Wealth likewise, I’d add.

Policies built into the federal tax code are an obvious example — not only so-called tax expenditures in the individual income tax system, but the tax treatment of assets that are passed on to heirs.

State and local tax policies also enter into the picture, since, on average, they collect the highest percent of income from residents in the bottom fifth of the income scale and the lowest percent of all for the top 1%.

Less obvious, but surely important are school financing policies, which tend to provide significantly more resources for the schools wealthy kids can attend and shortchange the schools for the poorest, who arguably need more.

Insofar as a good education increases future earnings, the uneven distribution of tax dollars contributes to uneven income distribution in successive generations.

Diverse labor policies also affect earnings, of course. These have generally tended to depress wage growth for the vast majority of workers.  And the savings they enable businesses to achieve go to owners, who may be shareholders — and in many large corporations, to CEOs.

Housing, transportation and urban development policies have also played a part by concentrating poor people in pockets of poverty, with limited access to jobs and, as aforementioned, good schools.

I’m sure some of you can think of others.

In short (after what perhaps should have been shorter), poverty and income inequality don’t just happen. We’ve created them — or at the very least, made decisions that foster them.

By the same token, we could make decisions to reduce them. We’ve got the wealth and a wealth of ideas. Not, however, the political will that can come only from a broad consensus that creating the conditions for shared prosperity is a must-do.

Beyond Poverty Reduction to Resetting the Whole Debate

November 4, 2013

Two years ago, Half in Ten relaunched its campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years. At the same time, it broadened the goal to reflect a vision of shared prosperity.

Now it’s published its second annual update. Like the last, the update reports progress (or lack thereof) according to 21 numeric indicators in four broad categories — poverty today, more good jobs, strengthening families and communities and economic security.

But this doesn’t begin to do justice to what Half in Ten has produced. Each of the four major chapters begins with a lengthy analytic narrative, with lots of data sprinkled in the text and in graphics. Category-specific policy recommendations follow.

Then come the indicators themselves. These are amplified by graphs and tables, many of which provide race/ethnicity breakouts and/or lengthier timeframes than the indicators proper.

So we actually have many more indicators than just the 21 the campaign established as benchmarks. We also have a higher-level policy framework for the to-dos in the chapters that address them.

A forward by Sister Simone Campbell, a leading voice in the progressive faith-based community, and a concluding call to action by top executives of Half in Ten’s parent organizations give meaning to the title of the report — “Resetting the Poverty Debate.”

Both take off from the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty that we’ll observe in January. We’re also reminded of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that we recently celebrated — in particular, of the inclusiveness that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for.

There’s no way I can summarize all this in a blog post. Even a bare account of the indicators themselves would run on too long. Let’s just say, we see some year-over-year progress on a handful of measures, more backsliding and a lot of stasis.

I may return to some of the specifics. At this point, I’ll try to pull out what I see as the major messages.

The first is that increasing income inequality is a major threat — not only to progress on the benchmarks, but to the social cohesion that would generate the political will for that.

The second is that our policymakers in Congress are having the wrong conversation — a “tone deaf debate,” as co-author Erik Stegman terms it. They’re at odds over how to replace sequestration, which they agree (for different reasons) is harmful.

Where they aren’t so far apart is on the need to keep whittling down the near-term deficit, though it’s much lower than it was when we got into all this budget-slashing business.

Results from the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure show that major safety net programs and others that benefit low-income Americans have lifted millions out of poverty.

They’re threatened now, as the debate over SNAP (the food stamp program) and the renewed calls for curbs on Social Security benefits indicate.

Beyond this, we see nothing to suggest that Congress will make the investments needed to create more jobs — unless and until something resets its priorities.

Nor does it seem inclined to enact policies that would ensure that such jobs as do exist are “good,” e.g., pay enough to at least cover the costs of basic necessities and offer critical protections and benefits like paid sick leave.

Nor to invest more in education and training that would enable more low-income people to qualify for good jobs. Or to make high-quality child care affordable for those who’d still have to pay a big chunk of their wages for care at market rates.

Third, the War on Poverty reminds us that poverty reduction and a considerable degree of shared prosperity are possible.

Between 1964 and 1973, the poverty dropped by 43% to an historically low 11.1%. And “the numbers and incomes of the middle class grew steadily,” the report says — though we still had (and have) marked disparities by race, ethnicity and gender.

Fourth, we need a strategy for these times, not a War on Poverty II. The report cites changes not only in our economy, but in our workforce and demographics.

Besides, says Sister Simone, “war is the wrong metaphor” now — most importantly, because “poverty is not a foreign enemy.” It’s “woven into the fabric of our economy” as a result of developments that our policies have enabled — and the ideology that’s sustained them.

We need to reject the false notion that “our nation is rooted in individualism,” she says, and look instead to the “communal relationship” expressed in the preamble to our Constitution.

Widening wealth and income gaps generate fear. In the face of it, we the people need to “reweave society” through “conversations about our shared values and the fact that we all do better when disparities are diminished.”

We need to “reframe the national debate.” This, as I earlier noted, reaches further and deeper than the specific measures the report recommends.

And it’s finally what the report seeks to achieve. It certainly gives us a lot to converse about — and a common fact base to start from.

Highly recommended.

Moving Beyond Trayvon Martin to Issues of Economic (In)Justice

September 23, 2013

Professor Gary Gutting has written one of the most thoughtful, far-reaching analyses of the Trayvon Martin case that I’ve seen.

On the one hand, he says, blacks responded to Trayvon as a symbol of the groundless, racist suspicions familiar to black males, e.g., whites crossing streets to avoid them, stop-and-frisks, the car door locks clicking that President Obama mentioned.

So, I should add, did some non-blacks.

But for others, Gutting says, Trayvon symbolized “disturbing realities” about all too many young black men, e.g., that they’re likely to drop out of school, commit violent crimes and engage in other anti-social behaviors.

So we’ve got two opposing moral judgments, but neither reaches the “deeper issue” — the fact of “a fundamental injustice in our economic system.”

Dr. Martin Luther King opened his famous March on Washington speech by proclaiming that “the Negro is still not free…. [He] lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity.”

This is still true 50 years later for 28% of blacks, Gutting says, citing last year’s official poverty figure. And the root cause is the way our free enterprise system works.

It’s geared primarily toward enabling individuals to amass personal wealth. And them’s what has gets, at the expense of them’s what don’t.

The end result is “a socioeconomic underclass deprived of the basic goods necessary for a fulfilling human life: adequate food, housing, health care and education, as well as meaningful and secure employment.”

Gutting asserts that “people should be free to pursue their happiness in the competitive market” — an odd conflation of happiness and riches.

But, he continues, “it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic goods” because if they don’t have them, they’ve “little chance of gaining them in competition” with those that do.

We’ve got scads of evidence for this. For example, we’ve got research showing that more than 40% of children raised in the bottom fifth of the income scale stay there as adults — and more than half if they’re black.

And other studies showing that children of wealthy parents start kindergarten ahead of the pack — and stay there, while a very large number of poor children start with disadvantages that cause them to fall further and further behind.

And data showing that even the poor kids who make it through high school are far less likely to go on to college — and less likely to graduate if they do. Costs and other financial pressures are, for blacks, the single most important reason, according to yet other research. And probably not for them only.

These differences carry over into competition in the labor market, of course.

Last month, only 3.5% of workers with a bachelors degree or higher were jobless and actively looking, as compared to 7.6% with a high school diploma or the equivalent and 11.3% with less.

The wage premium of a college degree is similarly marked — and due partly to the fact that more highly educated people are far more likely to be working, as Catherine Rampall at The New York Times notes.

Last year, the median earnings of men with a bachelors degree were nearly twice those of men with a high school degree or the equivalent — and more than two and two-thirds times those of men with less.

Even more marked disparities for women. The median for those without a high school diploma or the equivalent was a mere $14,867 — well under the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

And so income inequality replicates itself from generation to generation, with the rich getting richer and the poor, if not actually poorer, at least increasingly disadvantaged.

Gutting says that “[w]e need to move from outrage … to serious policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether our capitalist system is inevitably unjust.”

If it is, can we feasibly reform or even replace it? If it isn’t, what methods does it offer for rectifying the injustice represented by the continuing existence of an “underclass” — one that “given our history, will almost surely be racially defined?”

These are good questions — and the kind a philosophy professor can pose.

I’ve got a hard time imagining our policymakers and those who seek to influence them sitting down to discuss whether we should overhaul our basic economic system.

But we surely should have some productive discussion about leveling the playing field.

The recent Census report tells us that the top fifth of households got more than half of all income, while the bottom fifth got 3.2%. But this may actually understate income inequality because the Bureau doesn’t count capital gains.

A new analysis by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty estimates that the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains during the first three years of what’s supposedly our recovery. The share of income that flowed to the top tenth of that percent last year is the highest on a record dating back to 1917.

We don’t have to favor a post-capitalist system to know that there’s something wrong when the wealthiest families — the top 0.1% — had incomes over $10.2 million, while 46.5 million people lived in poverty.


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