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Re: the “47%” — We’re Having the Wrong Conversation. Again.

WARNING: Long Post. Contains Math.

I confess I have found myself frustrated this past week over the public response to Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks, leaked from a private fundraiser in May. Just to recap, here’s what was said:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax, 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll (President Obama) be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.

In the days since the video was released, there’s been a lot of response . . . but not necessarily the right response. From the right there’ve been two basic strategies: distancing (“I’m not him!!”) and apologia – namely a defense of the truth of the statistic in spite of the “inelegant” delivery.

From the left, the responses have been about process (“Is this the end of Romney’s campaign?”), or decrying of the candidate’s character, or lack thereof. The left’s response has been primarily about the character question, and about Romney’s seeming lack of compassion. Most of this has come in the form of, “Yes, but look at the people contained within the 47%!!”

In both instances, the truth of the statistic, and of what Romney is trying to communicate, is not often disputed. Technically, Romney is almost correct (it’s 46% according to the Tax Policy Center, who also note that number is abnormally high due to the current state of the economy).

However, the people who Romney is really trying to talk about are the poor. Look at the phrases used: “dependent upon government”; “ believe they are entitled”; “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” These are all standard issue conservative bromides vis a vis “the poor.” From the left, we decry the lack of compassion inherent in those statements. From my side of the aisle, I hear: “But that number includes the elderly! And children! And veterans!” There’s not a lot of challenge about the statistic itself, and the number needs to be challenged, especially if what we’re really talking about is poverty in the United States.

Thus, my frustration. Both ends of the political spectrum (at least from those who have a platform from which to be heard) make their arguments based on myths about poverty in this country that (dammit!) refuse to die. Romney’s remarks have provided us with an opportunity to have a fresh, honest conversation about poverty and “the poor.” And we’re dodging the conversation.

America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat.
Let’s begin with the most basic question: “Who are the poor?”

Actually, it may be easier to answer the question of who the poor are not.

To begin with, the poor are not a distinctive, discrete class. Not an ethnicity, not a race. Not some secret society whose mysteries are impenetrable. Not some strange alien species bent on invading our home territory. The poor are not a monolithic block of partisans, either. Hell, they’re not even the same people from year to year.

But, mainly, the poor are not something “other” than us.

Hopefully, this is not an earth-shattering revelation for most of you.

And yet, there is so much rhetorical energy spent in this country on painting just that picture.

The myth of the individual, and of the individual’s power to succeed and fail on his or her own merits, is so very strong in this country it is practically gospel. The icon of the “self-made millionaire” permeates American mythology, and the image of “pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps” is an enduring one. Success, we are told, is an individual virtue, and is achieved through individual hard work and determination. And if this is the case – the logic follows – if we own our success as individuals, then we own our failures as well. Poverty, in the popular American mythos, is the result of personal failings. It’s a notion that we trace back to our Pilgrim forbears in New England, a piece of the much idolized “Puritan work ethic.” Personal prosperity was a sign of God’s favor, and destitution a punishment for personal failings in the eyes of the divine.

While the language has secularized over the last four centuries, the concept remains the same: If I am poor, it is because I have failed.

So prevalent and sacrosanct is this myth of poverty in America that almost every anti-poverty initiative in our country’s history has been based upon it, regardless of the political leanings of the policy’s authors. Whether it’s a campaign to promote “personal responsibility” or an attempt to improve the quality of education in traditionally poor regions, these programs are all aimed at improving the so-called “human capital” of those living in poverty. All perpetuate the myth of personal failure.

This is the myth that creates the hyperbolic and wholly fabricated myth of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen. This is the myth that allows a politician to see a other human beings as unworthy of care or concern.

But “the poor” are not beasts to be feared or tamed. “The poor” are not something other than us, and poverty is not a stable segment of the population who pass on a poverty gene to the next generation.

As a nation, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the reality of poverty. We need the real answer to the question: “Who are the poor?”

In the strictly legal sense, “the poor” are any who live at or below the official poverty line, as established annually by the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the year 2012, the individual poverty line is $11,170. For a family of four, the line is $23,050. I don’t know how things are in your community, but where I live, $23K will not support a family of four with anything that resembles security.

Given the cost of living, if a family of four were to pull in $23K, are they really no longer living in poverty? Have they moved somehow magically into the middle class, and are now no longer in danger of losing the roof over their heads, or having to choose between heating their home or eating this week? That certainly wouldn’t be the case in this county.

Is poverty rightly defined by a federally determined threshold?

Consider this: the formula for determining the poverty line was established in 1959. It has not changed in over fifty years, and is calculated thus: the average cost of a subsistence diet for one year – a subsistence diet – multiplied by three. The multiplier was arrived at based on a USDA study from 1955 that suggested that an average of one third of a household budget should be spent on food.

Given the state of the economy today, is this a fair formula? Can we really base a definition of poverty in 2012 on economic studies more than a half century old?

In 1959 when the poverty line was established, the poverty threshold for a family of four was equal to just under 50% of the nation’s median income. Today, the threshold is less than 30% of that median. In other words, with an unaltered formula, the legal definition of poverty has grown harsher and more narrow over the last five decades when placed in comparison to the financial well-being of the rest of the nation. Consider also that nearly half of the legally poor in this country live at less than 50% of the defined threshold, the reality becomes that much harsher. And when that threshold is considered alongside the realities of the rising costs of housing, food, health care, child care, gasoline, and so on, it becomes clear that the answer to my initial question is “no.” The government’s definition of poverty, given the state of the current economy, is unrealistic, and unfair.

In all truth, it’s difficult to develop a concrete definition of poverty free of any arbitrary elements. Even the Federal poverty threshold doesn’t take into account the variable costs of living from region to region. The best we can do under the circumstances is to say that poverty is the condition of having to do without basic necessities, and that given the economic realities of today, there are plenty of people who live above the legal poverty line who are still in the position of making difficult choices – are still doing without – every day.

Where does poverty come from?

The proclamations of the Protestant work ethic and its centuries of successors to the contrary, poverty has much less to do with personal failure as it does with systemic failure within the larger society. To give it a medical analogy, poverty is a symptom of larger ills, not the virus that causes them. In his book, One Nation, Underprivileged, sociologist Mark Robert Rank argues that while most Americans will name laziness and lack of motivation as the causes of poverty, we can actually point to larger systemic ills.

The first is the nation’s weak social safety net. Rank notes that currently the United States spends a lower percentage of its GDP on social welfare programs than any other industrialized nation except for Japan (and still we manage to bellyache about how much we spend). What we spend on welfare in this country does very little to lift individuals out of poverty. Our programs affect about half has many people as programs in Canada or the UK, and even those nations are on the low end of the scale for effectiveness of welfare.

The second systemic problem is the failure of the labor market to provide enough jobs that lift people above the federal poverty threshold. In the past several decades, the number of jobs that pay a living wage has been far outstripped by the number of part-time and minimum wage jobs that are available. The current minimum wage is not enough to lift a full-time worker above the poverty line, and the disparity between executive and labor pay has grown at an obscenely exponential rate. Twenty-five years ago, the average CEO made forty times what a general laborer in their corporation made. Today, that CEO makes four hundred times as much. Despite a willingness to work, work does not necessarily guarantee survival. The job market is a losing game for many. We’ll come back to this in just a moment.

It is the third systemic issue which Rank points to that is the most striking. In America, we tend to think of “the poor” as a distinct, discrete class – a “them” – and tend to speak of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy as fixed segments of the population. Census statistics could conceivably bear this idea out. Looked at from year to year, the percentage of the population that could be classified as “poor” remains relatively stable. However, when we track the life of an individual throughout its course, we are presented with a very different picture.

Since 1968, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) has studied the economic situation of nearly five thousand Americans households, encompassing today nearly 18 thousand individuals. It’s sample is large and diverse enough to give us a representation of the American public. The findings of the PSID over the lifespan of Americans are startling.

Let’s say, for example, that one and a half times the poverty line is still a low enough income point to put a majority of Americans in a position of making the difficult choices of poverty (this would be a number equal to roughly one half of the nation’s median income (the poverty threshold of the 50s). According to the findings of the PSID, over the course of a lifespan, by the age of 75, nearly 80% of Americans will have lived at least one year, and most likely more than one, at or below 1.5 times the poverty line.

Not just 47%, but nearly 80%.

Nervous yet? If I were a presidential candidate, I’d certainly be a little more concerned.

Let me bring that number home. I have 440 Facebook friends. That percentage suggests that 352 members of that community have been, are, or may yet be struggling to live at a level that could rightly be considered poverty. 352 of my friends and neighbors. I won’t ask any of you to identify yourselves. But I’ll raise my hand and name myself as a one time member of those ranks. I know I’m not alone.

Poverty is a systemic issue. We are all part of the system. We are all at risk of paying the price.

Who are the poor?

We all are.

We now come to the point in my rant where my parishioners would remind me that I haven’t yet answered the most important question: So what? Why should I care? And what can I do about it?

The answer is simple. If we are the poor, then the responsibility falls to us to contribute to the end of poverty. Not only is it the right thing to do, but now it falls well and squarely into the realm of our own self-interest and sense of self-preservation (just in case “the right thing to do” is not a compelling enough argument for you).

The task seems insurmountable, it’s true. Where do we even begin?

We begin by reminding ourselves every day that the problem belongs to all of us. That we are the poor. It is mindfulness of that collective sense of “we” that will save us.

It should be an easy enough thing to regain that sense of “we.” How many reading this, how many others do you know, root for the home team, and talk about them as “we?” “We should shore up our defense.” “We should trade that guy.”

“We won!!”

How many of you are actually on the team, have played a down or an inning?

And yet we still say “we.”

We say “we” because we are proud to be part of that community, and we want the team to perform well. Each one of us is more likely to live in poverty than we are to play for the home team, but we still say “we” about our favorite team, and it is that sense of “we” that we need to regain with the rest of our community. It’s our team. We’re proud to be part of it, and we want it to fare well.

Now that we’ve regained a sense of community, we need to talk about musical chairs.

Mark Robert Rank uses musical chairs as an analogy for the systemic failure of the job market we spoke of earlier. In reality the game could stand in just as easily for the way we talk about poverty in this country. In the game of musical chairs there are clear winners and losers – indeed there are destined to be losers. In the analysis of why some people fail to succeed in the job market, or why some people fall into poverty, the talk usually comes down to the personal qualities of the participants – health, education, personal responsibility, motivation, etc. Many bemoan individuals’ “bad choices.” Now, education and skills may have a lot to do with personal success, but as Rank notes, even if we were to somehow put everyone on par physically and mentally before the start of the game – people are still going without chairs.

The question is not why people lose the game. The question is why there need to be losers at all.

There you go. All that’s above is the conversation we should be having. It does us no good to talk about numbers unless we’re looking at the right numbers. It does us no good to talk about compassion if we’re not aiming our bleeding hearts in the right direction. When others decry “those people,” we need to remind the world (and ourselves) that any one of us could be in that number – that none of us are truly secure. When others decry personal failure, we need to speak up loudly about the failure of the community. No government will change things without us making noise and leading the way. After all, no matter which team is in charge, the odds are good they’ll still be using 1959 math to solve a 2012 problem. It’s up to us to take them back to school.

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  1. I think you raise many good and valid points, about the issues with defining poverty, and the need to not stigmatize the poor. Two quibbles:

    1. I think there have been some good comments that HAVE focused on the issues faced by the poor in a much more sympathetic way, such as this column by Ezra Klein: We could use more comments like his and like yours.

    2. It actually is NOT the case that the poverty line is calculated by multiplying the subsistence food budget by 3. Rather, at some point in the 1960s, the federal government simply started updating the poverty line based on increases in the overall CPI. The poverty line was originally set on the 3 times food budget basis back in the 1960s, but it wasn’t directly calculated that way very long. However, your larger point, that the standards of what is poor change with social norms, is unaffected by this technical point.

  2. John Cullinan John Cullinan

    Tim, thanks for the info. I think it’s interesting that the HHS FAQ on the threshold admits that individual line items re: actual cost of living do not come into consideration.

  3. Bob Morgan Bob Morgan

    “We are the poor” is, indeed, true. Food stamps kept me and my wife from starving; WIC supplies made sure our daughter, your wife, had adequate nutrition in infancy. Now, the taxes I pay are small compensation for the support I was given when I needed it. Interdependency is the matrix of a society, the alternative to killing and eating each other.

  4. Allen Julian Allen Julian

    I was very glad to see your comments about poverty and the myths about who are the poor. I am one of those “poor”. Many of “us” fell into to poverty because of chronic health problems, temporary or permanent disability,limited possibilities of making a living above the “true” level of poverty. Also many of “us” are seniors who want to work but cannot find employment because “we” are considered obsolete due to our skills set.

    I never have met a disabled person who wants to receive “help” from substandard government programs. The poverty “level” does not consider how much is paid on rent, medical insurance and the cost of medicine, the true cost of utilities and food,etc. I make less than $900 per month but only allowed $30 of food stamps! We need to have a honest talk about poverty in this country! We are your neighbors, your family, your church members, and members of your community!

  5. […] are a diverse group of people who are in a particular situation.  There is a long post on the blog Your Life is a Gospel that shows all of the statistics.  Even though there may be a similar number of people in the […]

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