Tag Archives: poor

Can Democracy Work for the Poor?

New Orleans      We can answer the question of whether or not democracy can work for the poor, or we can ask why democracies are failing the poor?  Either way, the answer is uncomfortable for many who would think the question is easy, but the question is serious, largely because democracies are in fact failing the poor.

The Yale economist, Rohini Pande, asked these questions in Science recently, which seems a strange place to find such a critical question, but better there than nowhere.  Her piece is titled towards the academic and scientific community of her colleagues, so her touch is very gentle in assigning responsibility or solutions, but once she has opened Pandora’s box, we can handle the finger pointing.

It starts with the contradiction that the World Bank and most development aid for a number of years has been restricted to what they classify as low-income countries, in Latin America for example for a long time that has meant only Nicaragua and Bolivia, despite the fact that huge numbers of the poor are concentrated in countries now classified as middle income.  India, she notes, is a perfect example, claiming to be the world’s largest democracy, but also “home to the largest number of extreme poor and the third largest number of billionaires.”

Importantly, Pande is clear that the solution is not simply one of “plumbing,” meaning some fixes to the bureaucracy and the distribution systems of government.  This is largely because the poor lack the political power and influence to prevent elites and corruption from tilting the scale of pubic goods and services to their own self-interest.  This seems inarguable whether in poor or rich countries, as organizers know too well.

Pande’s proscriptions are somewhat standard, though interestingly, backed up by solid studies that legitimize what many of us know on the ground and from common sense. Pande argues for enfranchising the poor, which unfortunately is the opposite of what is happening here and elsewhere.  Pande believes that more information and transparency would improve the knowledge and participation of the poor.  Pande recommends encouraging the participation of the poor. Pande acknowledges that the barriers are legion and identifies the leverage points for change as the poor, insider elites, and outside actors like international and human rights agencies.  I’m less optimistic on the anything other than efforts dealing directly with activating the poor themselves, partially because the difference between elites and agencies is often miniscule.

Indirectly, she argues for resources actually going to direct organizing of the poor, which just doesn’t happen given the service and “plumbing” bias Pande correctly critiques.  In fact, Pande relegates the solution that “poor citizens…themselves motivate reform” to the very end of her case, citing protests in the UK, Nepal, and the US in the 60s.  If we really want to see the poor get an equal share from democracies, we need to move that to the front of the line and aggressively support their empowerment.  That argument might now work in Science, but it sure would work in reality.


Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, but Punitive to the Poor and All People

New Orleans  I happened to be sitting next to Washington University professor Mark Rank on a post-Katrina panel at Tulane University a decade or so ago.  In the intervening years Rank’s research into the real costs of poverty have become the benchmarks for assessment that the current political strategy for dealing with the poor is penny wise and pound foolish.  Attention to Rank’s recent work put him on the other end of the microphone recently for a Wade’s World radio interview  on our “voice of the people” stations.

Rank and his colleagues looked at the impact of childhood poverty and its short and long-term impacts.   Contrary to the conservative ideologues, they found that the cost of such poverty was staggering, not in payouts, but in lost potential and related costs.  They were able to crunch the numbers of lost income potential, criminal justice tensions, health care, and other key factors and found that the price tag for our current program of no-prevention-all-punishment is a staggering $1.3 trillion a year equally 5.4% of GDP.  Let these figures sink in.  By not spending the money on the front end to reduce poverty, nationally we lose that much money by our inaction.  In fact, if we were willing to actually try to reduce poverty, the economic benefits would be huge.  Rank found that for every single dollar spent to alleviate poverty we would save another seven dollars in national expenditures.   Adding a couple of other measures to their study, Rank and his team found that we would save as many as twelve dollars for every single buck we spent preventing poverty.

Yes, that’s the opposite of what we hear in the current drum beating in Congress by the Republican majority that wants to make accessing the social services safety net harder, not easier as Rank proves that it should.  They claim they are going to reduce the cost of social and health programs by requiring work.  As the Times’ columnist Eduardo Porter pointed out, the economic and historical record of such strategies only proves it is a political and ideological program not a bridge to self-sufficiency.  People simply stay poor or get poorer.  Porter writes that, “Before welfare reform kicked in [under President Clinton], 68% of poor families got help from the federal entitlement to the poor.  By 2016, its replacement served only 23%.”  The upshot is that there are four million more poor people than there were.

Looking at Rank’s work it is clear.  If we really want self-sufficient families contributing fully to the national economy and easing federal expenditures related to poverty, we need to stop pretending and playing politics with the poor, and start spending the dollars to reduce poverty.  Just as we find in the nation’s other wars, the war on the poor is more expensive that solving the problems beforehand.