Friday, September 26, 2003

Poverty in America

Number of People Living in Poverty in U.S. Increases Again
Poverty rose and income levels declined in 2002 for the second straight year as the nation's economy continued struggling after the first recession in a decade, the Census Bureau reported Friday.

The poverty rate was 12.1 percent last year, up from 11.7 percent in 2001. Nearly 34.6 million people lived in poverty, about 1.7 million more than the previous year....

... The poverty threshold differs by the size and makeup of a household. For instance, a person under 65 living alone in 2002 was considered in poverty if income was $9,359 or less; for a household of three including one child, it was $14,480.

So 12% of Americans are very, very poor. Another very large chunk lives pretty close to the edge. That's a lot of very poor people. The article didn't provide many references, but I suspect the poverty rate is still lower than in the early to mid 1990s. The problem is next year, and the fundamental causes of poverty in the United States.

First -- next year. Other administrations have targeted recessional fiscal stimuli to help low income families directly. The Bush administration fiscal stimuli is considered by most economists to be extremely inefficient in terms of near term support for low income Americans. I think we should all be worried about what next year's numbers will look like. Will we give up all the progress of the 90s?

Then there are the fundamentals. The world in which we live is increasingly demanding in a classically Darwinian fashion. Rewards go to the elite -- those gifted by genetics, environment, experience, and inheritance. The non-elite lose out. They become poor, and their children become poor. At the bottom of the heap are the 8-10% of all humans who have serious psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder), low IQs (in theory half the population has an IQ < 100, but in practice I think it's about 30% are less than 100), or bad luck (such as parents with the above, or just plain bad luck).

In a real sense, a lot of humanity that was "able" in the 19th century would be, practically speaking, "disabled" today. Someone with a good temperament and an IQ of 90 could be a well regarded laborer or farm worker in 1942; in 2003 I think they'd be out of luck. That's a lot of people.

Of course the Bush administration, and many Republicans and religious conservatives, seem to consider prosperity as a sign of God's favor. So non-elite status is a mark of God's disfavor. Who's to argue with God? If that's what you believe, then you may believe that the poor are best left to fester in quiet. (Except eventually they join Al-Qaeda II, but that's another story.)

If, on the other hand, one has a wee bit more compassion and understanding (and a desire for self-preservation?), then it's time to rethink approaches to hard core poverty -- and all those folks who live on the edge of the precipice. Maybe the high disability rates in Nordic countries need to be examined with a slighly different perspective. If the market solution to 21st century disability is unpalatable, then maybe we need to consider other solutions.

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