Our welfare state programs work well, but they are relatively stingy
I have been a long time free subscriber, however after this article I decided to become paid. I am a right of center Southerner that thinks your obsession with license plates is weird, but really enjoy your balanced and thoughtful take on most subjects even when I don’t always agree with you. And just picking with you about the license plate. It is good to have a quirky thing we become known for.
Here's where I lose respect for Desmond:
"...12.6 percent of the U.S. population was poor in 1970; two decades later, it was 13.5 percent; in 2010, it was 15.1 percent; and in 2019, it was 10.5 percent..."
Saying that this run of numbers shows no change -- handwaving away the difference between 15% and 10.5% -- is malpractice. That is a huge difference. If we were talking about a medical intervention in eg cancer treatment, this would be a cause for celebration.
Any honest investigator would respond to this by saying, "holy shit! For every three people with Condition X in 2010 there were only two people with Condition X in 2019? Someone has stumbled on a powerful causal lever! Let's find that thing!"
So...what was the new thing in 2019 that produced this striking change in the numbers? Because we should probably keep doing that thing.
This one is a real winner. I have to note that Desmond's essay on capitalism in the book version of The 1619 Project is perhaps one of the most problematic of all the chapters there. There are economic historians of diverse political stripes who think he doesn't know what he's talking about, that the essay is really pretty outrageously wrong in its rhetoric and the interpretations that it at least implies (minor revisions having been made to an earlier, more explicit version). In short the controversial thesis there is that large-scale plantation slavery in the American South introduced accounting and labor management innovations that then spread to other forms of capitalist production, meaning that in some ways slavery actually can be said to have caused or led to or pioneered or even perhaps provided the crucial investment seed money for American capitalism. James Oakes is simply scathing in his criticism of Desmond's contribution to T1619P. So there may be some kind of a pattern here, and unfortunately because of Desmond's linkage to the debates around T1619P there are going to be a lot of progressives who are inclined toward knee-jerk hostility to his critics. He's supposed to be on the side of the angels. Less tangentially, the addiction of today's progressive politics to the thesis of the impossibility of social improvement (and thus the futility of progressivism) is a thing to behold, verily.
> I think most people found his book a little dull and will find Desmond’s more interesting, which is unfortunate because I don’t think it’s helpful for Desmond to over-complicate the situation.
I think many of us are far more interested in reading and discussing social issues like poverty than we are in actually addressing these problems. Doubly so if it would come at a personal cost to us affluent wanna-be noble aristocrats. We simply enjoy the thrill of applying our thinking and sophistry in something of a status game where we cosplay as philosophers. A hundred years ago we’d likely be arguing about the interpretation of scripture in our application of the Social Gospel, without much need to actually apply anything.
And yes, this comment is an example of that. I hope to have some debating partners in the replies who can chastise me for being overly uncharitable to us progressives.
Since Yglesias is often credited with inventing (or at least widely popularizing) the #slatepitch, allow me to express gratitude for a "don't overthink it, the answer is simple and the statistics bear it out" post!
A banal comment: it is sad that there is apparently no incentive for mainline journalists to write a "poverty is falling" story.
It's okay to report good news!
> But the numbers involved are big and scary, GOP elites think it’s a bad idea, and Democratic Party advocacy groups who like this idea generally have higher priorities.
I think a lot of this comes down to us misdiagnosing a persuasion problem as a political problem.
We just don’t yet have substantial consensus that we Americans should pay higher taxes to reduce child poverty. Yes, almost everyone agrees that child poverty is bad and should be addressed. Even many Republican voters and politicians agree. But when personal sacrifice in the form of higher taxes is added to the proposal, we recoil in discomfort. We simply can’t address child poverty through politics until we’ve persuaded a sufficient number of fellow Americans to support this policy.
And yet we progressives deny the nature of the problem before us. We want to believe that our ideas are already broadly popular, or that we can eliminate personal sacrifice with some nebulous concept of “tax the rich.” Some of this may be our own unacknowledged selfishness. Some of it may be a lack of seriousness at actually addressing the problem.
But the biggest cause in my opinion is our lack of convictions in the power of our beliefs. We can’t even consider the possibility our ideas may be unpopular because that could suggest that we are wrong. We also don’t want to do the hard and dirty missionary work of converting others to our faith. That would require empathy for nonbelievers and a concerted effort to meet them where they are at as we spread the good word.
Yet I’m actually optimistic that the situation will improve because our ideas are strong, just, and persuasive. We’ll probably need a bit more pain before we’re forced to recon with the cold hard reality. Ultimately the power of our beliefs will compel us to do so.
The segment on conservative welfare-thought feels chalk-full of strawmen or motte-and-bailey type arguments.
"But essentially, their basic idea is that a proper anti-poverty policy should create a situation in which nobody has low labor market earnings."
The extreme take that nobody would have low market earnings is ridiculous, I agree. But prioritizing fewer people in that position seems reasonable, right? I'm sure there are plenty of dipshit conservtaives out there arguing the extreme version on Twitter, but that doesn't make the more reasonable "let's prioritize teaching men to fish rather than giving fish whenever we can" wrong.
Likewise, the "lack of sympathy for large classes of people." Is that supposed to advance the argument? Or course people have varying degrees of sympathy for large classes of people. In 2023, working class / non-college whites have become the people for whom the Left has little sympathy. The only question is whether or not the sympathies are "good" or "bad".
In the context of welfare, of course I have more sympathy for an 70 year old or a disabled combat veteran than I do for a healthy 20 year old who would rather smoke weed and play video games all day. It's fine to have disagreements about who "deserves" help. It's not as if Democrats are above having "bad" sympathies or a lack of them.
To play devil's advocate and try to defend Desmond a bit, I think one of his points is that, while material standards of low-income people have been going up in some regards (like access to inexpensive material goods), that their access to certain markers of middle class life (like housing, healthcare, higher education, and child care) is not. And he says that these are the things that "matter most." So, it could be true that in dollars poor people are better off than they used to be after transfers, and that they have better clothes, better household appliances, and better cell phones than they did a generation ago. But overall they are still as burdened because of high housing, education, child care, and health care costs. I think it's worth taking this argument seriously.
Now, I don't know if I agree with all of his analysis. I agree with you that misrepresenting statistics isn't a good way to make your point. And some of the stuff about rent isn't as convincing (it's perfectly possible to have a strong middle class made up of primarily renters--look at Germany). But I can see how other areas of exploitation have gotten worse over time--such as the availability of high interest loans targeted to the poor, lack of unions to bargain for their interest in the workplace, and a more costly banking system. I'm not sure these can explain current poverty levels in full, but I think it's worth engaging with these issues in addition to just government transfers.
European Gini coefficients are so low because it takes into account government transfers. Pre transfer, the Gini coefficients are much closer to the US, including in Scandinavia.
Let me play devil's advocate from a European perspective.
Americans who like European-style welfare states do tend to point to them as a way to decrease relative poverty. There are other methods that Europe does employ and don't involve raising taxes on anyone. Bring your best public universities (UC, Berkeley and Texas A&M and UIUC and...) to the level of the best EU public universities. Bring universities like MIT to the level of ... I'm not sure I can think of a good private engineering school in the EU. Make it more likely that new companies in both futuristic (Apple) and traditional (Tesla) sectors of the economy will be started elsewhere. You can do all these things by observing that taxing investment income or reducing the funds that are available for UIUC gives you more funds for food stamps without raising anyone's taxes. After all, probably more people will benefit from an increase in food stamps funds than they will benefit from attending UIUC.
I know that there are most likely trade-offs involved between growing the economy and fighting poverty, but I would like to understand what Americans that like EU style welfare states think on this balance.
I think the most charitable understanding of conservatives' opinions on poverty is that taking specific steps to address it (higher taxes and a more generous welfare state) would mean reduced growth, and there are some tradeoffs between optimizing for living standards at the middle of the income distribution vs optimizing for living standards at the lower end.
"...a lie I’m used to hearing from Paul Ryan..."
I have always understood the Republicans' complaints about the inefficacy of welfare spending to be its demonstrated failure to make big inroads in intergenerational poverty. Put another way, "no country has successfully addressed poverty this way, and I doubt anyone ever will."
I'm not sure it is possible to have a thorough discussion of poverty in the US while leaving out talk of drug and alcohol abuse. Even if it isn't having as large effects as other factors, such as government policy, it is so pervasive in many areas and if you don't see what it does to people it is hard to know how bad it can really get. Not an easy problem to tackle.
Matthew Desmond also wrote by far the worst piece of the 1619 project (which is saying something!) and came under zero mainstream criticism.
I am generally with Matt’s theory that the medias ‘bias’ is just commercial, but when you look at pieces like this and 1619 that view seems really naive. It’s just pure ideological polemic, always in the same direction.
Contrarian points on poverty:
1. If poverty is a relative measure there will always be a bottom 10% of the income distribution. So measuring without benefits could be more compassionate if your hope is to lower the number of people who actually need help not just arbitrarily give them money and call the problem solved.
2. As we see with labor participation and inflation after the generous COVID assistance, “just giving people money” really does have risks like high inflation that can go up faster than wages and end up counterproductive. And *if* we think that high labor participation is good then we should be mindful that generous assistance does work against it at the margins.
3. I never see people on the left to talk about this, but there are a lot of studies that show that the people who are in the bottom income quintile in any particular year are generally not still there when you measure again later. It’s actually a pretty important question to ask how many people are *stuck* in poverty, versus how many people only temporarily pass through. Why do they get stuck, and is there anything we can do about that?
4. We do not talk enough about trying to solve the poverty on the cost side if we were very serious about driving down the cost of housing, that would greatly alleviate poverty, no matter how you measure it. We’ve got this idea that basic education needs to be free but not any other basic human needs? Lowering the costs of health, and education, and housing, or possibly more important for quality of life than raising incomes.