The Absolute Poor are in America, Too

New Orleans      Angus Deaton, the Nobel prize winning economist and emeritus professor from Princeton, specializes in partnership with his wife, Anne Case, also an economist at Princeton, in examining poverty and its impacts.  Spoiler alert, this is not going to be a feel good report from the good news bears.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, he has written about the numbers of Americans that are trapped in one of the richest countries in the world in the global definition of “absolute poverty.”  The statistics he provides, many of which are not new, are not just sobering, they are maddening, especially in a political climate where Republicans in Congress and many state governors and legislators have declared war on the poor.

Deaton writes that, “According to the World Bank, 769 million people lived on less than $1.90 per day in 2013; they are the world’s poorest.  Of these 3.2 million are in the United States, and 3.3 million are in other high-income countries (most in Italy, Japan, and Spain).”  He goes on to cite the work of Oxford economist Robert Allen and his work in defining “absolute poverty lines for rich countries that are intended to match more accurately the $1.90 line for poor countries:  $4 a day is around the middle of his estimates….Once we do this, there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards.  This is a small number compared with the one for India, for example, but it is more than in Nepal (2.5 million).  Pakistan (12.7 million) has twice as many poor people as the United States, and Ethiopia about four times as many.”

Add to that his observation that life expectancy in the Mississippi Delta, which includes large parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and in Appalachia, is lower than Bangladesh and Vietnam.  He also reprises work he and Case have done that has attracted wide attention that for lower income whites with no more than a high school education, life expectancy in the United States is falling while “mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide are rising: and the historical decline in mortality from heart disease has stopped.”

Yes, I understand that in percentage terms, looking at the entire US population that is not a huge number, but does that excuse the need for public policies and distribution systems to support these millions of people?  We are talking about more than 5 million people living on less than $1500 per year!   Furthermore, in the widening wealth gap in our society and economy, lets remember how we define poverty.  In 2015, in the United States, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was an annual income of US $11,770; the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was US $24,250.   Absolute poverty by these definitions is 67% less per year than the American definition of poverty in those terms.

Politicians force themselves to forget that there are faces and families behind these numbers, and there are millions of stories for how they got there in the world’s richest country.  They may not be heard, and they are often invisible, but they should not be so easily ignored.


Please enjoy Heroes and Heroines by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Thanks to KABF.


The Weird Psychology of Feeling Poor Affects Attitudes on Inequality

New Orleans  In recent years close readers of Elizabeth Kolbert could count on her to keep us up to date on the rising temperature outside that has made climate change and the destruction of global species a global issue. In the New Yorker recently she started looking “inside” about how people feel about relative wealth and inequality by recording the temperature inside peoples’ minds. Reading her, it is now going to be hard for me to gauge which one is scarier for all of us.

First, she reprised two competing theories about how people feel about inequality. One, the rational-updating model, holds “that people assess their salaries in terms of opportunities.” In short, if they find co-workers are making more, they decide their chances of a raise are good. If they find that their co-workers are making less, they decide their chances of a raise are bad. The other theory involves emotional response rather than a rational one and is known as the “relative income” model, where anger is triggered if people find they are making less, and those making more are happy as clams.

A recent study though came up with a third finding. For sure those who found out they were making less were ticked, but the workers who discovered they were making more weren’t elated. In fact as Kolbert reported, “Workers who discovered they were doing better than their colleagues evinced no pleasure. They were merely indifferent.” The takeaway that speaks to the crisis of inequality in our current society is that “there are no real winners and a multitude of losers,” in her words. In mine it’s worse, because the winners feel neither shame nor obligation therefore buttressing inequality even as it grows increasingly extreme, as we recently witnessed in the impunity of the Republican’s recent tax “reform” transferring immense wealth to corporations, shareholders, and the rich.

In the psychology of the poor, they feel badly about their condition and other studies indicate that feeling also triggers riskier behavior as people try to break out of a zero-sum situation at the bottom of the ladder. This problem of feeling poor is not something that only lower income families experience in the reality of their situation, but is something that other social scientists find has gone viral even to the rich and upper classes. Their ability to “feel poorer” as multi-millionaires compared to centi-millionaires or billionaires, leads them to rationalize their situations into a distorted version of the “relative income” model. Worse, this false consciousness breeds total indifference to those who are actually poor, because even the super rich can claim that they are poorer than others, excusing and confusing the reality.

One observer studying this phenomena felt that this contradictory feeling among the rich spoke to “moral conflicts about having privilege in general.” I would discount that sense of shame and argue instead that this psychology of the rich enhances their sense of entitlement and explains part of the reason why, despite all of the drum beating about rising inequality, both political parties have come to the conclusion that their base – and donors – don’t see the reality of inequality and its virulent social impact as an issue worth action or solution, therefor impoverishing us all, perhaps permanently.


Please enjoy this version of Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, an unreleased track from Jimi Hendrix.

Thanks to KABF.