Income, Wealth, Power, Poverty

excerpted from the book

Against the Conventional Wisdom

by Douglas Dowd

WestviewPress, 1997



Poverty in the Midst of Plenty

Like other nations, ours tends to see itself as "the fairest of them all," requiring only that we ignore or deny the uglier sides of our reality. Except for an attentive few, that aloofness has always extended to the matter of poverty, as noted long ago and well by Michael Harrington (in The Other America, 1962) when he spoke of "the invisible poor."

At the very moment when we were seeing ourselves as "the affluent society" (the title, perhaps ironic, of a 1958 book by J. K. Galbraith), 35 million of our people were living below the official poverty line (as determined in 1964), 20 percent of the population-a percentage lowered significantly in the next decade or so, but toward which we have recently retrogressed.

Earlier, the foolishness of thinking about socioeconomic problems in only quantitative terms was noted; but when those terms are used, their definitions should be accurate and meaningful. The definition of the poverty line set in 1964 was a far remove from such standards, in a manner defying good sense.

Lyndon Johnson had just become president, the Vietnam war was escalating, there was a mounting civil rights and antipoverty movement, and LBJ wished to be known as a liberal leader taking us to his "Great Society"-including a "war on poverty." Although poverty was by no means new in the United States by 1964, it had never been "defined" officially (like unemployment in 1930); LBJ asked his aides to arrive at such a definition.

The resulting definition was-as is our custom regarding social problems-a number: A family of four with less than $3,000 per year was declared as poor. That number in turn was derived from the Social Security Administration's figure, which had been obtained from the Office of Civil Defense, for "a deficiency diet for temporary or emergency use," in turn defined as "a post-nuclear attack period." No comment. (The SSA figure was actually $3,165, based on the estimated cost of food times three; and then rounded off.)

Since then, the number has been adjusted upward-to $15,569 for a family of four in 1995, $12,158 for a family of three-to accord with subsequent inflation, assuming that nothing but prices have changed over more than thirty years. In fact much has changed, most important the cost of housing for the poor, now estimated to equal two-thirds of their expenditures, not, as in 1964, one-third. That change means, of course, that there is less for anything other than housing. It is worth adding that "a panel of poverty experts under the aegis of the National Research Council . . . found that changes in consumption, work patterns, taxes, and government benefits all suggested the need for an updated measure of poverty.... [These had the effect of] raising poverty rates by 3.6 percentage points in 1992 (the year on which the panel focused)."

Before discussing the non-quantitative "definitions" of poverty, let it be noted that already in 1975 the figure of $3,000 (adjusted for inflation to about $10,000) was deemed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be just about one-half of the amount needed to allow a "minimum budget for food, clothing, and housing, with little left over" (emphasis added).

A popular view among those who scorn the poor is that people "remain in" poverty deliberately, and that welfare recipients find that condition preferable to any other they might be able to achieve. Taking only numbers into consideration, that would be a barely credible view. When one considers the larger meanings of poverty, it is an outrageous distortion of what poverty means to the poor.

To be poor is to live in inadequate housing in overcrowded neighborhoods with bad schools and few or no recreational facilities; to be mired down in an atmosphere of hopelessness, of enduring agony over one's children, of poor health, rampant crime, price-gouging in local stores, job discrimination, political under-representation, police brutality, and constant insults-not least in the local welfare office. The emotional, psychological- and physical-impact of such conditions can only be imagined (or read about) by those who have not experienced them directly; but it takes little imagination to perceive that for those who are born poor the compounding difficulties of poverty are likely to keep them poor and to have children who will be poor-with here and there a rare and heroic exception.

In the years since World War II, there have always been 10-20 percent of our people living in poverty-in its official understatement. It is a daring society indeed that depends upon singularly exceptional youngsters to save it from the catastrophe implied by such "numbers."

If one stands back from all this to reflect, one asks oneself, Why, in a rich society like the United States, would poverty for tens of millions of people exist and, once revealed, persist? Why would it be, as it has in effect been, institutionalized? In Chapter 1 we saw it useful to ask about such matters: Who benefits? Who pays?

Reasonably decent people's immediate response would be that, well, nobody benefits, although quite clearly the poor pay (except for those who fantasize about "welfare queens"). The poor do "pay," of course; and less obviously and less painfully, so do most of the rest of us. But who benefits?

The Beneficence of Poverty

The sociologist Herbert Gans, in his analysis of what he calls "the uses of poverty," has provided some plausible answers to that question, expressed in terms of the functional (as contrasted with dysfunctional) consequences of poverty.

* Poverty means that the society's "dirty work" will be done and, a somewhat different point,

* Low wages for the poor subsidize many activities benefiting the affluent (maids, etc.).

* The poor pay a disproportionate share of (non-income) taxes.

* Jobs for many middle-income people depend upon the existence of poverty (social workers, prison guards, etc.).

* The poor buy shoddy goods others will not buy.

Those are some economic uses of poverty, but there are other uses:

* Those not poor can indulge in a self-defined elevation of their own moral and social standing-not unimportant in a society as concerned with appearances as ours.

* The poor absorb more than their share of socioeconomic change: pushed aside for freeways, urban renewal, etc.

* They also provide more than their share of cannon fodder.

* Subtly, but increasingly obvious these days, the poor are useful in the arguments against liberal social change.

The Facts of Poverty

Books have been written and more need to be written about poverty; here I must be brief. However, it is worth reminding readers that the measurements used in the United States-in ways going beyond those already noted-are systematically understated by comparison with Western Europe.

It is common in Europe to designate as "poor . . . those persons in families with adjusted incomes below 0.5 median adjusted income." Applying that to the United States shows that in 1991 we had (1) the most "poor": 16.6 percent of all persons (Canada at 12.3 and Britain at 11.7 were the next highest; Germany, Sweden, and Norway were the lowest, at 4.9, 5.0, and 4.8, respectively) and (2) the highest percentage of "well-to-do" ("persons in families with adjusted incomes above 1.5 times the median"), with 22.1 percent. For 1993 the adjusted rate was 18.4 percent poor.

Against the Conventional Wisdom