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Poverty Line Dancing

Robert Samuelson gives an interesting reflection on the politics of defining poverty. The official poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged for decades partly because of how we count it:

The poor's material well-being has improved. The official poverty measure obscures this by counting only pre-tax cash income and ignoring other sources of support. These include the earned-income tax credit (a rebate to low-income workers), food stamps, health insurance (Medicaid), housing and energy subsidies. Spending by poor households from all sources may be double their reported income, reports a study by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they've participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cell phones

And the Obama administration's effort to improve the statistic might not be helpful:

The "supplemental measure" ties the poverty threshold to what the poorest third of Americans spend on food, housing, clothes and utilities. The actual threshold -- not yet calculated -- will almost certainly be higher than today's poverty line. Moreover, the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty -- but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn't decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: people get richer but "poverty" stays stuck.

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I have written and talked about this with little but the evidence of my eyes and a handful of statistics. You know, things like obese poor people with five TVs who can't keep jobs because they don't like the work they have to do. You meet such people and marvel. This is one heck of an article.

But really, how wonderful that we in America have this changing definition of poverty. "A rising tide lifts all boats?" There are places in the world where poverty is absolute. Here it is relative. There are places where family and friends have done Christian "mission" work and that work is with people for whom eating is an event, because real poor people eat a few times week and nothing regular.

Or you meet immigrants here who talk about their past lives as if from some fairy tale, because what they experience as real in America in the present makes the past seem incredible. It is really the other way around, isn't it. "Poverty "experts" don't dwell on immigration, because it implies that more restrictive policies might reduce U.S. poverty." But that poverty is relative and those people tend to stay.

Samuelson blames Obama, but we have been looking at poverty like this for many years. This bunch might raise the bar for poverty again, but it is already been high. It was high in the 60s, and I remember people saying so. Still, this America and even the poor have right to the pursuit of undefined happiness.

At least the article doesn't end with "This is unsustainable!" as so many do these days. We don't really have any idea about that, do we? If the poor have money and spend, they are lifting the tide.

Relative poverty vs. absolute poverty is a very old policy disagreement. What underlies it is very simple: What obligation does the taxpayer have toward people of lesser means.

The answer should always lean towards absolute needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, and also towards self-help and long-term independence. Essentially, when some people are forced to support other people against their will, this is called slavery. The taxpayer should never be a slave, which is a good argument for private charity over the welfare state. Long-term charity should never be the law and enforced by violence (which is what taxpaying is all about).

Isn't the point a changing definition of absolute need? Some places, absolute need is food; shelter, maybe; clothing if you get around to it. Help toward long-term independence and self-government is a Western, liberal idea that we embrace because we believe in the possibility of human improvement. Poverty in America is an affront to our ideals; we have been officially at war with it since the 60s, but unofficially at war with it for much longer than that. If this is a war, poverty seems to be winning, or at least that is the message of the Samuelson article. The numbers of those in poverty have not changed, we are at stalemate.

Or else we have won.

I am not forgetting the redistributionist nature of our national policy. I am ignoring the evil of it so that I can I marvel at our pouring resources into this "War" and yet have the amazing prosperity to enable government agencies to redefine poverty upward like this. There is a story about Stalinist Russia and the movie "Grapes of Wrath" that I imperfectly recall. Maybe someone else knows it well enough to tell. The essence of the story is that American destitution shown onscreen looked pretty prosperous relatively speaking, to collective life in the Soviets.

In America you have to be crazy or you can craze yourself with drugs or drink or you can come into the country illegally and maybe then can you be absolutely poor.

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