Monday, May 31, 2010

The Poverty of Kings

Robert Samuelson decries new federal poverty definitions as "defining poverty up".  His basic argument is that poverty should be defined as the ability to purchase life's necessities, that a model that accounts for society's relative wealth is irrelevant.
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 cellphones.

Jamelle Bouie calls this a "familiar canard":
what you have is another attempt to minimize the actual poverty of poor people by pointing to items that are actually necessary to surviving in low-wage service economy. Indeed, by the end of the piece, Samuelson is a step away from lamenting that the new poverty measures will force the government to do more to combat poverty, as if what we do now is adequate. 
Whether Samuelson would go that far or not, it is certainly the underlying rhetorical argument made from these sort of claims.  By this logic, the poor today are living better than the upper middle class 200 years ago.  Why, even King George never had a microwave! 

This is an old canard indeed. The concept is a sort of fuzziness in which the poor are not really very poor and that many of them waste their money frivolously.

While the former is certainly false, the latter is only partially true. There is the curious case of Rent-A-Centers. I’ve been in poor neighborhoods where 3 of them exist within a 2 mile radius. To a middle class person who has never had to live in filth, these seem a dreadfully short-sided consumption: borrow what you don’t have to pay for things you don’t need, at absurdly high interest rates. The businesses are exploitative in that they take advantage of poverty’s desperation and often co-existent ignorance of money-management skills. We assume we would never stoop to such lows.

But I wonder about this. Middle class people, whose resources allow them to get financing at lower (and more reasonable) rates, are not strangers to indulgent consumption. In fact, one might argue, that a new car, jet ski or fancy refrigerator are more indulgent than a couch that doesn’t have someone else’s stains on it, or a nice television to enjoy after working all day pumping gas, cleaning toilets or flipping burgers.

In the end, being poor makes irresponsible consumption that much more dangerous. When paying rent, buying groceries and – god-forbid – medical expenses puts one at the mercy of month-to-month existence, blowing $100 here or there can be devastating. But for a socio-economic population that already struggles with lower levels of the forms of capital it takes to be successful, this sort of spending error can only be described as yet another of life’s long list of unfairnesses.

To hear those who have been able to find success pile-on in this way – assuming themselves to be so God-damned superior – is always somewhat stomach churning.

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