It Wouldn’t Be Hard to End Poverty in America

If we were willing to share the wealth. From Jacobin Magazine:

The poor in our nation are often blamed for their own crises, with lawmakers and even service providers citing bad behavior or ignorance as the cause of individual poverty.

In Broke in America, Joanne Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox reject that narrative. US policies that benefit the wealthy cause poverty, they insist — and changes to those policies can end it.

Fran Quigley interviewed Goldblum and Shaddox for Jacobin.


FQ

Almost immediately in this book, you confront the maxim, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”: “Antipoverty efforts should stop making assumptions about people’s fishing abilities,” you write. “It’s past time to stop judging and give that hungry person a fish.” Why did you take that on?

CS

That saying summarizes everything that’s wrong with how the United States addresses poverty: we say the problem is the person, so we need to fix the person and what that person lacks in skills. But does he even have a fishing pole? Is he too weak with hunger to go fish? Is the “he” in question actually a woman, and women aren’t allowed to fish there?

It’s so paternalistic and so horrible. Yet people say it all the time, like they’ve said something wise and caring.

JG

At the policy level, we create systems that actually make it harder for people to be self-sufficient.

For example, many people who are part of the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or workforce development programs are trained to become certified nursing assistants, CNAs. That’s a very important job that we need to do. But it is a poverty-wage job. By and large, people who work in those positions don’t have workplace benefits and are not paid a living wage. But the government trains someone to be a CNA and then it can feel like it’s done something because it’s gotten that person off of the rolls.

FQ

You devote a good deal of the book to reviewing the data and the stories that describe US poverty, but you always circle back to solutions, refuting the idea we often hear that “the poor will always be with us.” Why do you think we can, as your subtitle promises, end poverty in the United States?

JG

Because poverty is simply not having enough money to meet your needs. There is nothing more complicated about it than that. And we live in the richest nation in the world, where there is plenty of money. So if we have the political will, we could end poverty.

There are lots of different ways to do it. A living wage is necessary . . . We talk in the book about universal health care, housing supports, about making water and electricity and heat a public good. Other countries do all this, and there is no reason we could not do so as well. If we just tax people appropriately, we can have the money to do all this.

CS

We write about challenges in affording car insurance in places where you need a car to get to work, the difficulty in keeping the lights on, not being able to afford medicines. Being in poverty is like walking across a rotted floor — there are so many ways you can fall through. And it all comes down to money.

[There] is a lot of money that’s churning around in our economy, but it’s not being shared appropriately. And by “shared,” I don’t mean some generous act. I mean that the worker in the warehouse who is making everything run deserves a fair share of the revenue he is generating. We don’t have that now.

FQ

You both have worked with poor people in the United States for a long time. But you write that it took a while for you to come to your own realizations that our approach to confronting poverty is fundamentally flawed.

JG

I was a social worker doing direct service with chronically homeless families. When they did have homes, they often did not have heat and hot water. One mom who I worked with never had toilet paper and often did not have clean diapers. . . . It turned out there was no choice involved: there was nothing more than the fact that she couldn’t afford these basic necessities. . . .

CS

At the soup kitchen where I worked, you would always have people after the meal asking, “Do you have 75 cents for the bus?” I used to think, gosh, we should teach them planning skills, how to think more long-term. Because they knew when they came to the soup kitchen, they had to get back home. Later on, I realized: they were hungry, and they got 75 cents somehow to come to the soup kitchen to eat in the first place. That was the wise survival strategy.

So often we make judgments about poor people’s motivation and cognition that are really a reflection of not having resources. I do a lot of work in the criminal legal system, and motivation is a big deal. Do they show up for their appointments? Do they return phone calls?

Well, to show up for an appointment, you need transportation and childcare. To return phone calls, you need a working phone. The written notices may be written in a language they don’t speak. And on and on. It’s very much like that woman who didn’t have toilet paper: she didn’t need a lecture on being a better parent; she needed toilet paper. And the guys at the soup kitchen that I was making judgments about — they needed 75 cents for the bus.

FQ

You have your own experiences addressing poverty, you spoke with experts, and you did your own policy research. Why did you consider it important to include in the book the stories of people living in poverty?

JG

These stories matter. There is a certain symbolic annihilation of people in poverty in this country. You watch a situation comedy, and everybody lives in a house with a glittering kitchen with granite countertops. We don’t represent poor people in the world in either nonfiction or fiction terribly much. And when we do, we often reduce them to stereotypes. Colleen really insisted that we interview people from all over the country, to make it clear that poverty exists everywhere in the United States, and that it is not one community, one group, one area, one city. You can go anywhere and find people who are experiencing these issues.

FQ

As frontline service providers who have dealt with these practical problems of poverty, why did you include chapters on racism, sexism, and denial of political power?

CS

When you look at any indicator of poverty — who doesn’t have water in their house, who has food insecurity, who dies sooner — you see that race matters. And you can say the same for gender. Women are more likely to be in poverty, more likely to be in extreme poverty. It’s not just that the world is unfair to poor people. It’s doubly unfair when you belong to another oppressed group. There were some communities that are not just left behind, but consciously excluded from prosperity.

JG

That means that part of ending poverty is taking down structures that block access to the political process, educational opportunities, and on and on. For example, we write in the book about redlining and racism in housing policy at all levels. Colleen and I were very intentional about saying these things out loud and clearly, so people cannot pretend that racism and other structural inequalities don’t impact the struggles we are talking about.

FQ

You mention other nations’ approaches to basic needs. The United States has a dramatically higher poverty rate than other wealthy nations and dramatically greater levels of income and wealth inequality. What are other countries doing right that we don’t do here?

JG

They establish some sort of floor. There is no floor in the United States — there is no depth of poverty that you can’t fall to. We have made TANF time-limited, we have enacted policies to make SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps] time-limited. You can be literally left out in the cold here.

One of the biggest things that’s different about the United States than most other countries is that you can become bankrupt due to medical debt. Not having guaranteed health care and the likelihood of accumulating debt related to health care is uniquely American and incredibly dangerous. . . .You talk to people around the world, and they just are gobsmacked that we allow this. . . .

FQ

What led you down the path of devoting your professional careers to anti-poverty work?

JG

From the time that I can remember, the work that I felt called to do was being a social worker. My mother was a social worker who focused on reproductive rights, and my father was an attorney who did a lot of pro bono work with the ACLU and other causes. . . .

I grew up in New Jersey and was very lucky to go to Hunter College School of Social Work, which teaches what they refer to as Jane Addams social work: not therapy in an office, but changing systems and working to support people.

CS

Probably the defining moment of my life was when I was a very young child, about five or six. My mom was a waitress who worked incredibly hard to support us all. At night, when her feet were just aching, she would put her feet in a tub of Epsom salts. One night I was sitting on the floor playing next to her and I saw the basin fill up with blood because her calluses and blisters had cracked. And I remember thinking: People don’t know how hard her life is, because if they knew they would help. When I grow up, I’m going to write stories about people like my mom. . . .

FQ

I know Colleen is an active Democratic Socialists of America member, and Joanne describes herself as “a little left of liberal.” How far removed from our current U.S. political reality are your prescriptions for ending poverty?

CS

I am a socialist. But you can have onions in a soup without it being onion soup, right? Many of the policies we’re calling for are things that could be labeled socialist, but they’re going on in other capitalist countries. For example, Japan is a very capitalist country where childcare is free. We have just taken capitalism to a really toxic extreme in the United States.

FQ

There have been a lot of books written on poverty, and certainly a lot of media coverage. Who were you aiming to reach with this book?

JG

We wrote this for people who consider themselves to be progressive and may be sympathetic to the poor. But they also have heard the line that poverty is an individual failing or think that it is unsolvable. It’s not.

Starting the Year on a Positive Note

It’s not 100% positive, of course, but it’s something to keep in mind (any port in a storm). From Paul Krugman of The New York Times:

The next few months will be hell in terms of politics, epidemiology and economics. But at some point in 2021 things will start getting better. And there’s good reason to believe that once the good news starts, the improvement in our condition will be much faster and continue much longer than many people expect.

OK, one thing that probably won’t get better is the political scene. Day after day, Republicans — it’s not just Dxxxx Txxxx — keep demonstrating that they’re worse than you could possibly have imagined, even when you tried to take into account the fact that they’re worse than you could possibly have imagined. . . .

But on other fronts there’s a clear case for optimism. Science has come to our rescue, big time, with the miraculously fast development of vaccines against the coronavirus. True, the United States is botching the initial rollout, which should surprise nobody. But this is probably just a temporary hitch, especially because in less than three weeks we’ll have a president actually interested in doing his job [and is an actual human being].

And once we’ve achieved widespread vaccination, the economy will bounce back. The question is, how big will the bounce be?

Our last economic crisis was followed by a sluggish recovery. Employment didn’t return to 2007 levels until 2014; real median household income didn’t regain the lost ground until 2016. And many observers expect a replay of that story, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate and engage, once again, in economic sabotage under the pretense of being fiscally responsible.

But the crisis of 2020 was very different from the crisis of 2008, in ways that make our prospects look much better this time around.

The last economic crisis involved a Wile E. Coyote moment: The private sector suddenly looked down, realized that there was nothing supporting extravagant housing prices and extremely high levels of household debt, and plunged. The result was an extended period of depressed spending. The only way to have avoided multiple years of high unemployment would have been sustained, large-scale fiscal stimulus — and the [Republicans] prevented that.

This 2020 crisis, by contrast, was brought on by a headwind out of nowhere, in the form of the coronavirus. The private sector doesn’t seem to have been particularly overextended before the pandemic. And while we shouldn’t minimize the hardships faced by millions of families, on average Americans have been saving like crazy, and will emerge from the pandemic with stronger balance sheets than they had before.

So I’m in the camp that expects rapid growth once people feel safe going out and spending money. Mitch McConnell and company will, no doubt, do what they always do when a Democrat occupies the White House, and try to sabotage the recovery. But this time the economy won’t need support as badly as it did during the Obama years.

And I suspect, although with less confidence, that the boom will go on for a long time. Why? Because like a number of other people, I’m getting optimistic about the future of technology.

The years that followed the 2008 crisis weren’t just marked by sluggish job growth. They also coincided with a period of technological disappointment. As [one entrepeneur] put it, it was an era in which we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters instead. . . . That is, we were doing some flashy stuff pushing information around, but not making much progress in the material world, which is still where we mainly live.

Lately, however, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz around new physical technologies that reminds me of the buzz about information technology in the early 1990s, which presaged the productivity surge from 1995 to 2005. Biotechnology finally seems to be coming into its own — hence those miraculous vaccines. There has been incredible progress in renewable energy; I’m old enough to remember when solar power was considered a hippie fantasy, and now it’s cheaper than fossil fuels. There’s room for more skepticism about the near-term prospects for things like self-driving vehicles and lab-grown meat, but the fact that we’re even talking about such innovations is a good sign for the future.

This new wave of innovation doesn’t have much to do with policy, although progress in renewables can be partly attributed to the Obama administration’s promotion of green energy. But the Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, won’t be anti-science and won’t try desperately to preserve the coal-burning past. That will help us take advantage of progress.

I’m less confident in my techno-optimism than I am in my expectations for a rapid employment recovery once we’ve been vaccinated. But all in all, there’s a pretty good chance that Joe Biden will preside over an economy that surprises many people on the upside. 

Good Riddance

Snippets from our last day of 2020 (I dare you):

As the U.S. confronted a new wave of infection and death through the summer and fall, the president’s approach to the pandemic came down to a single question: What would it mean for him? (NY Times)

We came all this way to let vaccines go bad in the freezer? America did not plan how to get millions of people vaccinated. (NY Times)

For months, Americans who despaired about the country’s coronavirus-suppression efforts looked desperately to the arrival of a vaccine for a kind of pandemic deliverance. Now that it has arrived, miraculously fast, we are failing utterly to administer it with anything like the urgency the pace of dying requires — and, perhaps most maddeningly, failing in precisely the same way as we did earlier in the year. America’s vaccine rollout is already a disaster. (NY Magazine)

Txxxx returns to Washington early as allies plot challenge to Biden victory. (The Guardian)

Whenever the MAGA set whines over someone calling for the Republican Party’s demise, one need only point to the fleet of prominent Republicans who have demonstrated their contempt for democracy. [Senator] Josh Hawley reminds us that the GOP is the sedition party. (Washington Post)

The stock market is ending 2020 in record territory, even as the virus surges and millions go hungry. (Washington Post)

Year ends on low note as 787,000 more Americans file for unemployment (The Guardian)

[Senator] McConnell refuses to budge on $2,000 stimulus checks. “Just give us a vote on the House-passed bill, and we can vote on whatever right-wing conspiracy theory you like,” [Senator Schumer] said on the Senate floor. (CNBC)

What did the Democrats win? The minority repeatedly thwarting the will of the majority is intolerable and untenable. (NY Review of Books)

Bomb cyclone in northern Pacific Ocean breaks all-time records. (Washington Post)

Knausgaard returns, with a collection of earnest, tedious, minor essays. Is excessive literary production a social offense? (NY Times)

For psychics, a year like no other: “Everybody wants to know what’s coming”. (Washington Post)

2021 is going to be like the math professor who took over for Ted Kaczynski. (Conan O’Brien)

Happy New Year!

Menace to Society

It’s excellent news that the federal government and almost fifty states are suing Facebook for being an illegal monopoly. Their aim is to break up the company. But it’s too bad Facebook management can’t be sued for being immoral creeps. They know how bad they are, just like the managers at cigarette companies who knew they were causing cancer and the oil company executives who knew decades ago they were destroying the climate.

This report is from the Daily Mail back in May (it’s a newspaper that specializes in less important topics — note the brief paragraphs):

Facebook researchers learnt as far back as in 2016 that 64 percent of all extremist group joins are due to its own recommendations but executives . . . killed any efforts to fix the problem, according to sources.

Research at the social media giant in 2016 and again in 2018 unearthed a worrying trend linking the platform’s recommendations to extremist views on the site.

But despite researchers coming up with several different solutions to tackle the problem of extremism, no action was taken.

People familiar with the matter have told The Wall Street Journal that the move to dismiss the recommendations was largely down to Facebook VP for policy and former George W. Bush administration official Joel Kaplan, who famously threw Brett Kavanaugh a party when he was appointed Supreme Court Justice in the middle of sexual assault allegations in 2018 . . . .

In 2016, the company carried out research that found there was a worryingly high proportion of extremist content and groups on the platform.

Facebook researcher and sociologist Monica Lee wrote in a presentation at the time that there was an abundance of extremist and racist content in over a third of large German political Facebook groups.

The presentation states ‘64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.’

Most of the joining activity came from the platform’s ‘Groups You Should Join’ and ‘Discover’ algorithms, she found, meaning: ‘Our recommendation systems grow the problem.’

Facebook then launched new research in 2017 looking at how its social media platform polarized the views of its users.

The project was headed up by Facebook’s then-chief product officer Chris Cox who led the task force known as ‘Common Ground’.

It revealed the social media platform was fueling conflict among its users and increasing extremist views.

It also showed that bad behavior among users came from the small groups of people with the most extreme views, with more accounts on the far-right than far-left in the US.

The concerning findings were released in an internal presentation the following year.

‘Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,’ a slide from the 2018 presentation read.

‘If left unchecked,’ it warned, Facebook would feed users ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.’

Cox and his team offered up several solutions to the problem, including building a system for digging out extreme content and suppressing clickbait around politics.

Another initiative called ‘Sparing Sharing’ involved reducing the spread of content by what it called ‘hyperactive users’ – who are highly active on the platform and show extreme views on either the left or the right, the sources told the Journal.

But the efforts – and the research – were reportedly blocked by senior executives including founder Mark Zuckerberg and Kaplan.

According to sources, Kaplan killed any attempts to change the platform branding the move ‘paternalistic’ and citing concerns that they would mainly impact right-wing social media users, the Journal reported.

Unquote.

Facebook has become a big part of the right-wing media machine, partly because the company was criticized for being unfair to right-wingers. In response to that criticism, they hired Republican executives to make sure right-wing lies and conspiracy theories weren’t interfered with, in fact, that they were promoted, as the report above shows. Thus, from The Guardian last month:

Since election day, 16 of the top 20 public Facebook posts that include the word “election” feature false or misleading information casting doubt on the election in favor of Txxxx, according to a Guardian analysis of posts with the most interactions using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Of those, 13 are posts by the president’s own page, one is a direct quote from Txxxx published by Fox News, one is by the rightwing evangelical Christian Franklin Graham, and the last is the Newsmax Higbie video [“a laundry list of false and debunked claims casting doubt on the outcome of the presidential election”].

The four posts that do not include misinformation are congratulatory messages by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for Biden and Kamala Harris and two posts by Graham, including a request for prayers for Txxxx and a remembrance by Graham of his father, the conservative televangelist Billy Graham.

So Crazy, It Might Just Work

Two facts: Democrats need a more compelling message and New York Times editorials are boring. The subject of yesterday’s editorial, however, is interesting and would give the Democrats a more powerful message. It’s called “Let’s Talk About Higher Wages”:

One of the great successes of the Republican Party in recent decades is the relentless propagation of a simple formula for economic growth: tax cuts.

The formula doesn’t work, but that has not affected its popularity. In part, that’s because people like tax cuts. But it’s also because people like economic growth, and while the cult of tax cuts has attracted many critics, it lacks for obvious rivals.

Democratic politicians have tended to campaign on helping people left behind by economic growth, the difficulties caused by economic growth and the problems that cannot be addressed by economic growth. When Democrats do talk about encouraging economic growth, they often sound like Republicans with a few misgivings — the party of kinder, better tax cuts.

This is not just a political problem for Democrats; it is an economic problem for the United States. The nation needs a better story about the drivers of economic growth, to marshal support for better public policies. The painful lessons of recent decades, along with recent economic research, point to a promising candidate: higher wages.

Raising the wages of American workers ought to be the priority of economic policymakers and the measure of economic performance under the Biden administration. We’d all be better off paying less attention to . . . the nation’s gross domestic product and focusing instead on . . . workers’ paychecks.

Set aside, for the moment, the familiar arguments for higher wages: fairness, equality of opportunity, ensuring Americans can provide for their families. The argument here is that higher wages can stoke the sputtering engine of economic growth.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of the benefits is the story of Henry Ford’s decision in 1914 to pay $5 a day to workers on his Model T assembly lines. He did it to increase production — he was paying a premium to maintain a reliable work force. The unexpected benefit was that Ford’s factory workers became Ford customers, too.

The same logic still holds: Consumption drives the American economy, and workers who are paid more can spend more. The rich spend a smaller share of what they earn, and though they lend to the poor, the overall result is still less spending and consumption.

For decades, mainstream economists insisted that it was impossible to order up a sustainable increase in wages because compensation levels reflected the unerring judgment of market forces. “People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise,” [according to] the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

The conventional wisdom held that productivity growth was the only route to higher wages. Through that lens, efforts to negotiate or require higher wages were counterproductive. Minimum-wage laws would raise unemployment because there was only so much money in the wage pool, and if some people got more, others would get none. Collective bargaining similarly was derided as a scheme by some workers to take money from others.

It was in the context of this worldview that it became popular to argue that tax cuts would drive prosperity. Rich people would invest, productivity would increase, wages would rise.

In the real world, things are more complicated. Wages are influenced by a tug of war between employers and workers, and employers have been winning. One clear piece of evidence is the yawning divergence between productivity growth and wage growth since roughly 1970. Productivity has more than doubled; wages have lagged far behind. . . .

The importance of rewriting our stories about the way the economy works is that they frame our policy debates. Our beliefs about economics determine what seems viable and worthwhile — and whether new ideas can muster support.

Preaching the value of higher wages is a necessary first step toward concrete changes in public policy that can begin to shift economic power. It can help to build support for increasing the federal minimum wage — a policy that already has proved popular at the state level, including in conservative states like Arkansas, Florida and Missouri, where voters in recent years have approved higher minimum wages in referendums.

A focus on higher wages is not a sufficient goal for economic policy. . . .

But a focus on wage growth would provide a useful organizing principle for public policy — and an antidote to the attractive simplicity of the belief in the magical power of tax cuts. . . .

That won’t be easy. The affluent live in growing isolation from other Americans, which makes it harder for them to imagine themselves as members of a broader community. Their companies derive a growing share of profits from other countries, which makes it easier to ignore the welfare of American consumers. The nation’s laws, social norms and patterns of daily life all have been revised in recent decades to facilitate the suppression of wage growth.

But we can begin by telling better stories about the way the economy works.

Unquote.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation it would be around $12 today, instead of $7.25  If it had kept up with productivity, it would be more than $24. So it makes sense that Democratic politicians want to raise the minimum wage. Although doing so would indirectly raise the wages of better-paid workers, Democrats rarely, if ever, emphasize that fact. 

There are other ways for national and local government to help wages rise, such as paying government workers more, requiring higher wages in government contracts, making government subsidies contingent on higher wages, reducing Social Security and Medicare taxes for lower-paid workers (while raising them for the very well-paid) and making it easier to form and sustain unions. The Times editorial is saying that Democrats should make higher wages — higher take-home pay — an overarching message. That would convince more of the working class to stop electing Republicans and vote in their economic interest.