About a month ago, the Associated Press reported survey data indicating that nearly four out of five American adults would experience economic insecurity by the time they turned 60.
Many columnists and talking heads picked up on the story. Unlike most, James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal raised various objections to the economic insecurity measures the AP source used. One (unemployment) I agree with. The others not.
Taranto argues, among other things, that one of the measures — near-poverty — is “arbitrary” because it’s set at 150% of the applicable federal poverty threshold. Half again as high isn’t “near,” he says.
Well, blogger Matt Bruenig responds, what if we just measured the likelihood of at least a year in poverty, as measured by the official thresholds?
He dips into a paper published in 2001 and discovers that more than half (51%) of adults will have experienced a year’s worth of poverty or more during a “lifespan” encompassing ages 25 through 75.
Large differences, as you might expect, when levels of formal education are factored in. But what’s truly striking are the cross-cutting differences.
With or without a high school education or more, rates for women are higher than for men. More striking are the very large differences between blacks and whites of both genders.
By the age of 75, nearly 70% of black men with a high school education or more have spent at least a year in poverty, as compared to 30.7% of white men in the same (perhaps over-broad) category.
For similarly-qualified black women, the rate rises to 77.5% — about 40% higher than the rate for their white counterparts.
For black women with less than a high school education, the chances of not experiencing poverty in adulthood are a mere 1.7%. And about 70% have already lived in poverty by the time they reach 35.
The 75-year-old rate for black men without a high school education is 95.6% — more than 21% higher than for their white counterparts.
We’ve had two recessions since these figures were calculated. So it’s reasonable to assume that the poverty risk rates would be higher if more recent figures were crunched.
Whether the black-white disparities would be smaller is an open question. But they surely wouldn’t have disappeared.
From the early 1960s forward, the black unemployment rate has always been at least twice the rate for whites, writes Algernon Austin at the Economic Policy Institute in an overview of the “unfinished business” from the 1963 March on Washington.
Though the black poverty rate is significantly lower than it was 50 years ago, it’s drifted back up since 2000 and, at last count, stood at 27.6% — nearly three times the rate for whites.
The earnings gaps for those employed are very large too, especially at higher education levels.
For example, full-time white male workers with at least a four-year college degree earn about 18% — roughly $16,950 a year — more than their black counterparts. The race gap for women is smaller, but still close to $5,000 a year.
Professor Mark Rank, who gave the AP its headline figures, apparently chose his economic insecurity indicators to bring more whites into the pool than the Census Bureau’s poverty figures do — and with good intentions.
“Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need,” he says.
Which is tantamount to saying that we, as a society, don’t care all that much about poverty and its root causes so long as we think they’re minority issues.
If true — and I think it is — we’ve not transformed “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” as Dr. Martin Luther King hoped we would when he spoke to the marchers half a century ago.
No one, I think, would say we’ve made no progress. Whether we’re marching forward in all areas is a whole other matter.
Who would have thought 10 years ago that federal voting rights protections would have been such an urgent item on last Saturday’s march agenda?