This week Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) called America’s poor “the envy of the world.” How often does he actually see them? (More)

Unglued, Part III: Seeing Each Other (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers our segregated nation. Thursday we began with increasingly homogenous and exclusive white communities. Yesterday we saw how policies isolate and impoverish communities of color. Today we discuss why we must overcome our political and racial segregation to fulfill the Framers’ vision of “a more perfect Union.”

“Systematically mistaken about verifiable, factual information”

Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a stubborn believer in the American Dream:

Darrell Issa, the richest man in Congress, said America has made “our poor somewhat the envy of the world.”
“If you go to India or you go to any number of other Third World countries, you have two problems: You have greater inequality of income and wealth. You also have less opportunity for people to rise from the have not to the have,” said Issa. In the U.S., he noted there is better availability and access to quality public education.

It’s not likely that Rep. Issa spends much time with the working poor. His personal fortune is worth almost $450 million, making him the wealthiest member of Congress. So perhaps he doesn’t know that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of the developed world in economic mobility:

The American Dream is supposed to mean that through hard work and perseverance, even the poorest people can make it to middle class or above. But it’s actually harder to move up in America than it is in most other advanced nations.
Among the major developed countries, only in Italy and the United Kingdom is there less economic mobility, according to [economist Miles] Corak.

Alas, Rep. Issa is not alone in his misplaced faith, that article revealed:

“It’s clear that Americans still believe that America has exceptional mobility, and that’s not true,” said [economist Jason] Long. He calling it “vexing” that “lots of people could be systematically mistaken about verifiable, factual information.”

“Every time David Brooks’ cardiologist neighbor raises his fees”

One reason Americans are systematically mistaken about poverty is simply that too many in our media systematically lie about it. Consider David Brooks’ column last week in the New York Times:

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

If you follow Brooks’ link to Samuelson, you’ll find this:

In 2011, [Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution] estimates, federal spending dedicated to the poor averaged $13,000 for every person below the federal poverty line, now $23,000 for a family of four.

Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office reports that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, spending on the largest “means-tested” programs (eligibility set by low income) increased from $55 billion in 1972 to $588 billion in 2012. Most of these programs – including Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and Pell college grants – didn’t exist in 1964.

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research dissects this statistical sleight-of-hand:

Of course if NYT columnists were expected to be accurate when they talked about government programs, Brooks would have been forced to tell readers that around 40 percent of these payments are Medicaid payments that go directly to doctors and other health care providers. We pay twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries, with little to show in the way of outcomes. We can think of these high health care costs as a generous payment to the poor, but what this actually means is that every time David Brooks’ cardiologist neighbor raises his fees, David Brooks will complain about how we are being too generous to the poor.

The other point that an honest columnist would be forced to make is that the vast majority of these payments do not go to people who are below the poverty line and therefore don’t count in the denominator for his “poor person” calculation. The cutoff for Medicaid is well above the poverty level in most states. The same is true for food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and most of the other programs that make up Brooks’ $14,000 per person figure. In other words, he has taken the spending that goes to a much larger population and divided it by the number of people who are classified as poor.

“Substantial gains for children who moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods when they were young”

Brooks stumbles closer to the deeper problem of poverty later in his column:

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

Alas, he then turns back toward do-it-yourself-ism:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Brooks recognizes that the problem is that impoverished neighborhoods hamstring their residents, but he overlooks an obvious solution grounded in new research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. They reviewed data from the Moving to Opportunity experiment that began in the 1990s. The experiments aggregate results were discouraging … until Chetty, Hendren, and Katz parsed the data by the children’s age at the time of the move:

We conclude that the Moving to Opportunity experiment generated substantial gains for children who moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods when they were young. We estimate that moving a child out of public housing to a low-poverty area when young (at age 8 on average) using an MTO-type experimental voucher will increase the child’s total lifetime earnings by about $302,000. This is equivalent to a gain of $99,000 per child moved in present value at age 8, discounting future earnings at a 3% interest rate. The increased earnings of children ultimately leads to significant benefits to taxpayers as well. Children whose families took up experimental vouchers before they were 13 pay an extra $394 per year in federal income taxes during their mid-twenties. If these gains persist in subsequent years of adulthood, the additional tax revenue obtained from these children will itself offset the incremental cost of the experimental voucher treatment relative to providing public housing. Thus, our findings suggest that housing vouchers which (1) require families to move to lower-poverty areas and (2) are targeted at low-income families with young children can reduce the intergenerational persistence of poverty and ultimately save the government money.

Research by sociologist Patrick Sharkey suggests these gains will be even more apparent when children moved to low-poverty neighborhoods grow up and have children of their own:

Sharkey’s startling finding, however, is this: Children in poor neighborhoods whose mothers grew up in middle-class neighborhoods score an average of 102, only slightly below the average scores of children whose families lived in middle-class neighborhoods for two generations. But children who live in middle-class neighborhoods yet whose mothers grew up in poor neighborhoods score an average of only 98. Sharkey concludes that “the parent’s environment during [her own] childhood may be more important than the child’s own environment.”

“I know it because I’ve seen it as governor”

You won’t find a Moving to Opportunity-type solution in GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush’s column on poverty. Indeed he declares the War on Poverty a failure and insists the solutions are, well, a familiar conservative litany: encourage marriage, replace public schools with charter schools, cut taxes, and create regulation-free ‘enterprise zones’ in poverty stricken neighborhoods. He adds:

It can get better. I know it because I’ve seen it as governor, where a combination of education reforms and pro-growth policies helped raise household incomes up and down the income ladder – and gave a generation of children a real chance to rise up.

Oh really? Let’s fact check that:

A new report released today by the Center for American Progress Action Fund finds that Florida is doing worse than most states in several poverty indicators, including the overall poverty rate, the child poverty rate, health insurance coverage, and income inequality. The report also ranks Florida 50th in the nation for affordable and available housing.

After 16 years of Republican rule, beginning with eight years by Jeb Bush, Florida ranked in the bottom half of U.S. states in 11 of the 15 indicators measured by the CAPAF study, and incomes for the working poor dropped by 7.2% during Bush’s term.

“A hardening of racial and economic attitudes”

The spatial solution to concentrated poverty may be obvious – move families with young children to low-poverty neighborhoods – but “obvious” is not a synonym for “easy.” Indeed, such efforts usually collapse under the pressure of NIMBYism:

The development of affordable housing and services for low- and moderate-income households has been plagued by “local opposition,” commonly referred to as the not-in-my-back-yard or “NIMBY”syndrome, for decades. In combination with exclusionary zoning, some developers’ responses to actual or anticipated local opposition against specific development proposals maintain and increase racial and economic segregation. Much contemporary affordable housing is indistinguishable from market-rate housing and studies abound to refute fears about reduced property values and other common complaints. Some hope that as more communities experience the success of contemporary affordable housing, future proposals will generate less fear and resistance. Yet, a hardening of racial and economic attitudes and increasing opposition to growth and development of all kinds suggest that local opposition is likely to remain and even get worse.

Simply, for too many Americans, the ideal solution to poverty is denial. Call the poor “the envy of the world,” or “lucky duckies” who pay no taxes, and make sure to mention that most of America’s poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and cheap electronics. They’re doing just fine, thankyouverymuch, especially if you don’t have to see them. And if they’re not, it’s because Those People make Bad Choices due to an intractable Culture of Poverty or because Their Parents Don’t Hit Them Enough.

Defeating poverty will cost money, but it will require something more as well. It will require us to see the poor, right next door, where ‘their’ children can play and go to school with ‘our’ children … until we drop those divisive pronouns and accept that “We the People” really does mean … all of us.


Happy Saturday!