Poverty, and the Discussion of Poverty, are Bad in the USA

I really like reading Tom Murphy over at the excellent Humanosphere (http://www.humanosphere.org/) but I think this article does a terrible job describing the real issue of how “poverty” is perceived in the USA:

There are two competing narratives about poverty in the United States. One is summed up best by commentator and TV host Bill O’Reilly, who argues that poverty is not all that bad in the U.S. and the majority of the poor benefit from the “free stuff” given to them by the government[…]The opposing view is detailed in the recently published book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. Their research finds that there are 1.5 million American households living on less than $2 per person per day — below the global extreme poverty line. About half of these households do not access the public benefits such as welfare and food stamps.
Link: Poverty in the U.S.: It’s worse than you’re led to believe

Putting a quote from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly up against a scientific publication of data and analysis is a strange way to frame a debate when there are numerous academics arguing all sides of the issue. Besides that the article’s author misses a great opportunity to discuss the “O’Reilly Narrative”.

It isn’t just about how you interpret data but also how your politics, historical perspective, informs your definition of “poverty”.

For example there are those who define poverty one way, say those whose frame of reference is a firsthand experience or romanticized image of the Great Depression. They might see poverty as “not having stuff” (a house, clothes, food, being able to walk into an Emergency Room).

That’s quite different from the poverty of “having stuff but not having the right stuff” (not having access to the same level of education, food, medical care etc. afforded to most other people).

In an extremely anecdotal but very illustrative case, someone who grew up in the kind of “poverty” where they wore cardboard shoes might have trouble seeing someone as “poor” who wears sneakers and carries a cell phone.

That seems pretty clear in the O’Reilly quote, “This myth that there are kids who don’t have anything to eat is a total lie”. Is it about really not having anything — no house, no job, no food? Or is it about having the worst of those things — eating extremely unhealthy food, living in a rat/roach infested dwelling at the mercy of a price-gouging landlord, struggling to keep a job because of unscrupulous bosses or poor health caused by the aforementioned living/food situation?

Another missed point about the “O’Reilly Narrative” is that it is intensely political. In U.S. politics “poverty” is a problem you fix with welfare and progressive policies on the Left — or job creation, faith-based charities and individual initiative on the Right.

Just listen to the GOP and Democrat presidential candidates. They will fix “poverty” by stopping immigrants from taking jobs or stopping companies from shipping them overseas. They will fix “poverty” by privatizing education or by spending more on public schools. They will “fix” poverty with more handouts from the government or by cutting off all forms of government assistance.

Perhaps most important is the historical perspective: our point in space and time, as well as our point’s connection to all the other points in the universe.

One’s morality (not just religion) might push one towards seeing the “poor” as inherently incapable/unworthy of being helped (God wants them that way), or towards narrowly defining the “poor” as those who are literally naked, starving and helpless. Or one’s religion could push them to donate generously to charity.

Unaware of how the world works, one could think that America could easily go back to a manufacturing-led economy. Or one can see reasons for this social and economic hardship by looking at geography, the distribution of favorable climates and natural resources, the patterns of trade and demography, and the human animal itself.

Stats are important. But this isn’t a simple matter of “numbers versus fantasy”.

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