How to Measure Poverty


James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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171 Responses

  1. I had no idea that the U.S. measured poverty the way you describe. (I’m not disputing your description.–I’m purely a layperson on such matters–I just didn’t know.)

    The poverty basket sounds like a good idea. One complication, I believe, is that it would make poverty policy in the U.S. a bit more complicated because of the regional variations. Any federally provided aid would probably have to have differentials based on location. In practice, this would likely mean differentials per state, which in turn would still potentially provide a too uniform definition of poverty. Illinois, for example, has urban Chicago with high housing costs and the rural areas with lower nominal housing costs (I suppose this is true, as I haven’t done the research). But if Illinois got a huge block grant from the federal government, the size of that block would probably be some sort of average between Chicago and downstate.

    It also has complications for the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, and if such guaranteed income is tied to regional disparities, we’d probably see a lot of borderline cases where people live just inside a high-cost area in order to secure a larger guaranteed income, and where others who are just outside a high-cost area and pay similar high costs, would get a lower income.

    These are potential complications, but not deal breakers, and I suppose there are ways around them. I realize some people would say that in a country as large and regionally diverse as the U.S., such complications are an argument for local poverty measures, with the federal government taking only a facilitating role (or, depending on your brand of subsidiariity, no role at all). I’m not sure what I think of that.

    At any rate, thanks for writing this post.Report

  2. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Good stuff, James. In my work with children, I talk about three key components to goal setting: specific, measurable, achievable (these aren’t original to me but I can’t remember the original source that framed them as such). So, when we work with kids on setting goals, we tell them that, “Getting better at reading” is an admirable goal but too vague. Instead, we help them frame it as, “Move up 3 reading levels by December,” or some such thing. So, I really like what you’ve got here.

    The basket idea is a good one. It still requires a lot of work to determine what is necessary and what a “decent life” is, but I assume those questions are answerable, perhaps even statistically. In my conversation with Aitch and others on the original thread, I talked about things that help to move people out of poverty. Perhaps this was what Sean was getting at, but the idea of just helping people make poverty more tolerable while not helping them get out of poverty always seemed like a sub ideal solution.

    A while back, I got into it with MA because I discussed how, if I were to run a soup kitchen, I wouldn’t employ it with volunteers but instead would seek to hire from the community it aims to serve. In addition to providing food, it’d provide a modest income, job training, and a resume builder. That would likely mean we’d feed less hungry people, but long term, we might actually make a dent in the numbers of the perpetually hungry, instead of just helping them get to their next meal. MA objected on a number of levels, but I still feel this would be a system I preferred. Nurturing dependency, whether intentional or not, is a problem. Positioning people such that they can take care of themselves and ultimately contribute positively to society seems like a win-win-win.

    As I said to Aitch, I’m not particularly keen on the idea of giving out phones so that people aren’t jealous of their phone-wielding neighbors. But I am on board with the idea of giving out phones so that people can use them to get and hold jobs and eventually pay for their own phone. I would like to see the basket reflect this, whenever possible.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Kazzy says:


      Before reading your comment I wrote about those key components to goal-setting, too. But you didn’t include relevant and time-bounded. Interestingly, though, your example clearly does include those two components, so you’re doing it right anyway!Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I remember someone suggested those two and then said we can make a clever acronym (SMART!) but I thought they were being more silly than serious, even if the point was well taken. Was that you??? Regardless, yes, the SMART method is a, well, smart one.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Goddamnit! I see below that it WAS you! Did you come up with that on your own or did you pull it from somewhere? I’d be interested in the source if it is the latter.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        No, it wasn’t me who created it, and I doubt you heard it from me (I don’t recall mentioning it on a blog before). According to Wiki, some guy named George Doran coined it in ’81. It’s widely used in management of various sorts, including project management and public administration (which is where I picked it up).

        Of course as such things go, it’s often treated as a buzzword, recited in meetings, but not seriously applied. And “relevant” often gets overridden by measurable, because some relevant things are hard to measure, and it’s easier to prove you’ve measured something than to prove the measured thing’s relevance. Such is the nature of the world, and one of the reasons we all sneer at management, then behave the same way when we ourselves are promoted to it.Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        This is all lies. I created the system and they stole it from me and changed the acronym.

        The original was to make goals Discrete, Unambiguous, Measurable and Bound by time, or DUMB. I have no idea why they changed my system. Jerks.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Awesome. Jealous I didn’t come up with that.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Stellar post James, couldn’t agree more though I’d have used Afghanistan instead of Iraq in that example personally.Report

  4. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I’m totally on board with this if we want to go the explicitly-allowing-“poverty”-to-rise-in-real-terms route. In fact, i think it’s exactly the correct way to go about it, with the prices in the Poverty Baskets added up and so forth.

    I think the same basic thing would work even if we don’t want to be explicit about it – i.e. if we want to try to stick with a definition from some particular Poverty Basket date and try to honestly assess when poverty might have been eliminated, or how much it’s been decreased. (Understanding that we’re doing the same thing with the calculation of the multiple years – except as long as we continue to assemble new baskets, we’re implicitly blessing the idea that poverty continues to be with us and is now something new, rather than trying to bring into view the possibility that at some point poverty itself begins to recede into the past, and the issue actually is a degree of inequality we don’t like.)

    I actually don’t have a strong preference between these two, just pointing out that the basic set-up here would serve either approach, or a hybrid (such as setting out to try to stick with a Poverty Basket from a particular year, but allowing new Basket assembly when will power breaks down or it seems appropriate, rather than planning the reassemblies ahead of time.)Report

    • …I raise these possibilities because, as written, the post seems to actually commit to a quasi-normative view about poverty that it actually does change with the material fortunes of the society. And that’s a perfectly valid position to take, but it’s definitely one that was a main topic of the whole discussion from whence this post arises – and, to be frank about it, it’s a position that isn’t really argued for in the post. That’s because the post is meant to be, and is, primarily a framework for measuring poverty, however we decide to construct it qualitatively/conceptually. Despite seeming to throw your lot in with Smith on that question, in fact your framework seems to me to be fully adaptable to other qualitative ideas about poverty, including in temporal and possibly even cross-cultural dimensions.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I didn’t spend much time arguing for a shifting poverty line because I observe the shifting poverty line existing in practice. For example, No one tries to apply the Extreme Poverty Line to the US, nor tries to apply the US’s poverty line to developing countries.

        Furthermore, if you have a fixed poverty line, then it has to be technology-independent, since the line would have to be valid for all point in time. That means that you’d have to exclude anything from your poverty measure that is a technological invention. This would include all healthcare and any transportation other than walking.Report

      • Right, so does that mean that in a normative sense (in this case normative in the sense of believing language should actually roughly represent what its words purport to represent), you think the public understanding should be that material conditions associated with poverty in fact should change with the material conditions of the larger society? That that’s basically how poverty works, or in any case is the most sensible way to understand the concept? Or are you just setting this up as a system thats reflect the understanding that you entirely neutrally observe? Because as I said, there definitely isn’t consensus that the poverty line should shift past a certain point. If you’re just neutrally observing how the line shifts in practice, you’re sidestepping that discussion, which is perfectly great, but if you’re endorsing a shifting poverty line (which your discussion of Smith suggests you might, that would be interesting to clarify as well. Do you have an opinion about whether the definition of poverty should float with the prosperity of society (and societies), or not?

        As to technology, a fixed line set now would have to exclude technology invented in the future, but the Basket could include a selection of technologies that we have now. Same with if we selected a line from the past. It’s not “technology or no technology.” Even if it was, it really wouldn’t do that much to help us set the line. What was the cutoff line between poor people and non-poor people before then invention of [EDIT:]poverty fire (or, the adoption and control of fire as a tool, which is a technology)? Any one we set is somewhat arbitrary, the question we’re asking here is just whether it moves (or continues to move) or not.

        IOW, I think maybe we might be thinking that either the poverty line moves, or it doesn’t, when in fact, intuitively to me, it seems like the most sensible way to think of it is that as prosperity increases, it might make sense to think that it moves for a while and then perhaps stops moving. (Not necessarily, but perhaps.) Why because, for a long time, it’s almost undeniable that nearly everybody was poor (certainly by our standards, but by almost any conceivable perspective as well), yet at the same time, those people needed to be able to distinguish the poorer among them, so they called them poor. As societies got richer, there continued to be poor people, but they got better off, so the line moved. But at some point, it got to where many of the people we now think of as poor probably have more than people who would have been rich in the past. I don’t think that’s perverse, but I do think it’s reason to consider whether it makes sense to think of poverty as something that moves in defintion for a time, and then stops moving and becomes absolute.

        If that’s the case, then a (now) fixed Poverty Basket could include a selection of technologies from some given time (like, say, now), but not have more added as they are invented. OTOH, we may just want to affirm that our understanding of poverty should just continue to shift with prosperity, new technology (like Mike Schilling suggests), etc., in which case we’ll keep adding things to the Basket (and, moreover, dollars to its real value).

        My point is that the question of which of those to do actually is on the table. It’s a key part of the conversation we’re having, and I think it actually does affect what we conclude about what the right way to measure poverty is.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Michael Drew says:

        When I’m in analyst mode I tend to focus on “is” questions to the exclusion of “ought” questions. I observe that peoples’ standards of poverty shift over time. I don’t really concern myself with why they do so or whether they should.Report

      • I understand, and it’s not a critique, it’s a question. You could concern yourself with it, and I’m asking what your view is. You don’t have to oblige, but you could. After all, the question basically underlies everything we’ve been talking about. And it affects determining the right way to measure poverty. You offered a good a way to measure poverty if in fact it isn’t wrong, just incorrect, to define poverty as something that will always comprise rising levels of affluence, so lonf as society’s affluence increases. OTOH, if that’s wrong, (like, if there’s a Platonic form of Poverty out there that shows that, actually, poverty might be different things at different levels of societal wealth up to a point, but then there’s a point where, no matter how people feel about it, people aren’t poor if they have X even if society keeps getting richer, or something), then a system that sets out to account for how people feel about what the word means and reflect that with Poverty Baskets relating only to those feelings is actually just measuring poverty wrongly (as right as it will feel to the people whose feelings it reflects).Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Honestly this isn’t something I’ve thought about much, so I’m afraid I don’t have much to contribute, sorry.Report

      • Totally understand. Kudos again on the post.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    I’m actually cool with this (it’s not really different from the definition I gave in the other thread), except that I’d add that poverty isn’t simply material conditions, it is also a limit on how much control one has over one’s material conditions. To some extent, this is dealt with by reducing some of the material conditions associated with poverty (like access to transportation, access to employment, access to communication resources, and access to capital), but to some extent it is both cultural and systemic (that is, mobility problems are part of the structure of the market, even if we remove artificial barriers to entry like cab medallions). I don’t think we’ve adequately defined poverty, at least for the purposes of dealing with poverty as an economic and social problem, unless we deal with opportunity issues that are not strictly determined by material conditions.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Chris says:

      I don’t think we’ve adequately defined poverty, at least for the purposes of dealing with poverty as an economic and social problem, unless we deal with opportunity issues that are not strictly determined by material conditions.

      It’s an interesting fact, and one that is never reflected in any measure of poverty, that someone who works two eight-hour jobs a day for $8 an hour is much much poorer than someone who works one eight-hour job a day for $16 an hour.

      They both make $320 a week, but one of them has half the transportation costs, less child-care costs, can actually go grocery shopping and make meals instead of buying fast food, etc, etc.

      A good deal of what actually limits the poor is lack of _time_, not money. That’s half the reason they make the ‘poor choices’ that morons yammer about. They are eating at McDonalds instead of making sandwiches for lunch because they have no time to make sandwiches for lunch. It’s like no one realizes the poor don’t have damn personal assistants.

      I’d like to see some sort of measurement of poverty that started taking away some of people’s apparent income for each hour over ten a day they worked. Or, hell, just a cutoff…you work 14 hours a day, for the purposes of figuring if you’re at the poverty line or not, we only count the first 10 hours of that, and the money that made you. (Except averaged, in case you work two jobs with different payscales.) Or at half the amount it makes.

      Each hour worked over ten a day _does_ get someone more money, but it almost certainly adds so much more in costs back that we really should have something to represent that.Report

  6. Avatar Damon says:

    “•Conduct wide-scale social research outlining what goods and services people consider essential to a decent life. Get beneath platitudes like “good healthcare” and “decent housing”. What kind of healthcare? What constitutes decent housing?”

    That’s going to be a gordian knot. Let’s start with a small example. Cell phones. Essential or not? Let’s assume yes.

    Does that mean a current Iphone/smartphone? If not, how old / not current qualifies
    Voice only or data / text?
    If Data / Text, unlimited or limited data? What limit?

    Now do that with Food, Healthcare, Transportation, Housing (including A/C &/or heat) Appliances (Does everyone need a fridge, a coffeemaker, etc.)

    A comittee could spend a decade coming up with the answers and then it’ll go to congress and get changed again.

    That’s not to say I’m not in favor of this concept; I just think it can easily decend into the weeds and become a political football, rendering it OBE.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Damon says:

      Yes, but that’s what keeps James K in a job, so it’s a feature, not a bug.

      (Just kidding, James!)Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Damon says:

      Oh yes, this would be quite an undertaking, but I think it’s necessary to doing a good job of defining poverty. I wouldn’t suggest a committee do it though, it should be handled by people with actual research experience, and the answers need to come from the public, since it’s society’s standards we’d be trying to measure.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James K says:

        In any case, whether committees are ever convened or not (incidentally, I’d point out that committees can be composed of experienced researchers), your laying out the framework clarifies thinking on the question regardless, and we owe you some thanks for the contribution even if it never goes beyond this post & thread.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Damon says:

      I think stomach cancer is a lot more costly to treat than getting poor folks refridgerators.
      Can we at least agree to not flush money down the tubes trying to make “poor people feel poor”?Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I think that to eliminate or even measure poverty, you need to first figure out what people on average want out of life from a materialistic point of view. That is what to do they expect in terms of the necessities and luxuries of life. Its important to include some luxuries as opposed to just necessities because they make life happier for most people.

    Once you figure out what people on average want than you have to decide whats practical to give. I’m sure that a lot of people would love to live like the rich and famous but its not really practical or possible for everybody to be a Kardashian. The ecological costs alone would be immense. However, if people are satisifed with a relatively decent sized house or apartment with adequate food and clothing plus reasonable discreationary spending and leisure time that would be possible to deliver and keep the environmental and other costs under control.

    Now comes the really difficult part, coming up with a way to deliver this to people. Do you do it through a series of programs like universal healthcare, subsidized or public housing, etc. or do you just determine what a necessary minimal income is and give people the money to spend as they please. I favor a bit of both.Report

  8. Avatar trizzlor says:

    I think this is a great idea because it also allows us to look at how different poverty baskets correlate with other metrics such as median income or a happiness index or GDP and really think about how important filling the poverty basket is compared to other factors. From a similar discussion about a year ago, I would propose a typical liberal poverty basket consist of access to food, housing, health-care, and education. The conservative poverty-baskets I’ve seen at sites like Heritage emphasize ownership of cable television, refrigerator, microwave, etc. Perhaps that’s why perspectives on “poverty” are so different between the two parties.

    Thinking along the lines of access versus ownership, I feel like a metric that also quantifies how much time you actually spend in poverty is just as important as one that defines poverty itself. After a certain median income, I would be much more desirable of a policy that tackles income mobility rather than poverty itself. In other words, a country where there are more people in poverty but fewer people in lifetime poverty (or fewer poor people with children in poverty).Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to trizzlor says:

      I think you’re giving conservatives way too much credit when you say their poverty basket focuses on things like cable television. IMHO, modern movement conservatism has an a priori belief that government spending to reduce poverty is inherently unjust, and they then create arguments for reducing antipoverty spending based on whatever’s convenient (“Look, those people don’t need welfare–they all have refrigerators!”). The way you can tell is this–when was the last time you saw conservative actually fund a program that was intended to alleviate poverty, however it’s defined? It’s not as if the GOP is arguing that antipoverty efforts should be run in a different fashion; instead, it opposes those programs full stop, and puts almost no effort into passing replacements for their draconian cuts to existing programs. Even tax cuts for the poor aren’t a high priority, when compared to the urgent need to cut the top marginal rate or the capital gains tax.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Dan Miller says:

        medicare part D?Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Dan Miller says:

        The poor get Medicaid; Medicare Part D primarily benefits the old (although there’s obvious overlap between the two groups). It’s worth noting, moreover, that the GOP base had to be arm-wrestled into accepting the plan by Tom DeLay and President Bush, who saw it as necessary to their political survival. It’s not as if it was the fulfillment of a long-term conservative goal; it was something that just enough of them were willing to hold their noses and vote for.Report

  9. Avatar LWA says:

    Its a good idea to have an economic measurement of poverty- it allows us to make quantifiable legal decisions.

    Howver, i think it is a deep error to leave it at that. Jaybird commented [paraprhasing] on how odd it is that a poor person in America is equal to a rich person elsewhere.
    Its odder than that- two people can live next door to each other in Ameria, having exactly the same income level, and yet one is “poor” and the other is merely broke.

    The pain of poverty, what makes it something evil that we should address, isn’t (in First World countries) usually a matter of material privation.
    Being poor as opposed to broke means being isolated from society- ostracized and held in lower esteem.
    In answer to many conservatives question of why a cell phone is somehow a necessity, because lacking one in our modern society has become a stigma.
    Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, I wish it weren’t (I would gladly get rid of mine), but the reality we live with is that in order to be included in society, to be held as a welcome and functioning member, you need a minimum level of material goods, and that includes a cell phone.

    Too often we allow the dialogue to lapse into homo ecoomicus type of logic, and forget the more important aspect of culture and society.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to LWA says:

      two people can live next door to each other in Ameria, having exactly the same income level, and yet one is “poor” and the other is merely broke.

      Could you expand on that? I’m not arguing, but I’m not quite grasping what you mean.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        There are plenty of people who earn very little money, yet lead lives that are rich and satisfying- their marriages are stable, they form effective healthy family structures, and their jobs, while low paying, are fulfilling. A lot of new immigrants fit this pattern. these peopel are just broke.

        Others, even earning the same, lack some or all of those things- their lives are in painful chaos and disarray, and they lurch from one crisis to the next, whether it is eviction, divorce, substance abuse, or whatever- these people are what we think of when we say “poor”.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        Do you believe in the idea that marriage is now becoming another luxury item for the upper-middle class?

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        Thank you. I both understand and agree.Report

      • That strikes me as backwards. Economically, I believe marriage is a bonus no matter where on the economic spectrum you are. The most economically vulnerable would have the most to gain from it. That they aren’t suggests that I am wrong about marriage being an economic good*, there is an internal cultural issue preventing it, or something outside is preventing it (such as, among African-Americans, the number of black men in prison).

        * – The only reason for which I can think of is government incentives. I have a couple friends who haven’t gotten married precisely because of how it would affect their government benefits. But I don’t think that’s the norm. Right now they have the benefits of marriage (a deep commitment, split expenses, etc.), which few non-married people can lay claim to (IMO)Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        @Will–marriage definitely has economic benefits no matter where on the economic spectrum you are, but I think that’s only half the story. Financial stress can make it harder to stay in a long-term relationship–a lot of divorces and breakups happen after a financial shock because it strains the relationship, and the poor are more vulnerable to that.Report

    • Avatar roger in reply to LWA says:

      “…the reality we live with is that in order to be included in society, to be held as a welcome and functioning member, you need a minimum level of material goods, and that includes a cell phone.”

      Oddly, none of us is born with a cell phone. Even odder, just about all of us figure out by some time around our 18th birthday that the way to earn these strange devices is to convert our labor into a medium of exchange. In the rare case where this is not discovered (due to bad genetics? bad parenting? bad culture? government dependency? Misguided interference in job and self employment opportunity?) we have temporary safety nets, though we must be careful that we do not make the net so easy that we fail to stress the importance of converting labor into something worthwhile of exchange.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to roger says:

        @roger I think the point is that in our modern society, it is extremely difficult to rise out of poverty without a reliable method of communication with prospective employers.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Cells phones are really useful and greatly help the poorest people rise up. Are they a requirement: no, but they are a good idea to help people. I’ve worked with some poor folk who have used the EVIL DEMON obamaphone program ( which started in 1996 when Dr Who/Obama put in place). For people who don’t have stable housing not having phone makes it very hard to get even a McD’s job. What do you put on a job app for a phone number if you are couch surfing with family or friends or at a DV shelter??? Do you put the DV shelter phone number? how does that look to an employer? Do you put that you’ll be staying with aunt martha for the next week than, your freind billy for the week after that??? You will never get hired that way and even is someone wanted to call you they probably couldn’t’ reach you.

        A cheap cell phone allows a person to keep one number as they find stable housing, get and make all the calls they need to make in a timely manner. I’ve seen them work very well. Its not about it being a necessity, its about helping someone rise up. This kind of thing has been especially helpful for women in DV shelters who will need months to get on their feet yet have little income usually or support.Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        Greg and Rocket,

        They also need shoes. And knowledge on how to use a phone.

        In a successful society that wants to continue to thrive and prosper I think it is a reasonable expectation that most new 18 year old entrants to the job market will have a family which provides them with some these things. Or that the kid earned money doing odd jobs (the kind statists like to make illegal) to buy a used phone. Or he can use a friend’s, or neighbor’s or the phone at his home abandoned kids or whatever.

        If I was an employer, I would love to know who is so parasitic and incapable of basic social skills that they depended upon a government handout for a phone. Better than an IQ test.

        “Son, I got just one question for ya… Where’d you get that fancy iphone?”

        That said, I was hired before I got a phone. Somehow I found a way to make it work and then — hold on for the shock — I used my wages to buy a phone and pay a phone bill. Later I remember hiring people who had unconventional phone situations.

        I am being half facetious obviously. There are exceptions. Perhaps some church organization could supply used phones or something for that one person in a thousand that can’t figure it out.

        Creating a government program to supply phones to the social outcasts of the world is the guarantee of a society of dependent retards. Talk about culture of dependency. In twenty years you’ll be asking who is responsible for dialing the dang thing.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Wow Roger wow. “dependent retards”…umm wow. You can do far better.
        FWIW the people i’ve worked with who got a 1$ “government phone” were people who were either DV victims who were in DV shelters or who had long standing substance abuse problems who were in treatment trying to get on their feet. So i guess we could call them “social outcasts” if you really want. Their situations were not having stable place to stay, either they were in shelters or temporarily living with family. They weren’t 18, they were adults who had lived hard lives, certainly partially due to their own choices and due to crappy people in their lives and fate/luck. If they had families to fall back on it was to have a roof over their head and some food while they tried to stay sober or rebuild their lives. Unsurprisingly women in DV shelters don’t’ have ton of support from their husbands.

        It’s easy to look down on all these people who are clearly below you. I admit they have f’d up parts of their lives and if you choose to look down on them, which you clearly do, that is your choice. Its a sort of free country. But when we’re talking about helping people rise up this is often who we are talking about, real, flawed people, just like me, not you of course but like the rest of us. They benefit a lot more from some tangible, often simple help, then chanting austrian mantras and being spat at.

        Lots and lots of “those” people do get on their feet, so they can be independent members of society. So your snearing belief that they have been made permanently helpless says more about you than them. Does it happen to some, yes, but plenty rise up. Since people do rise up with the help of these evil programs maybe its not the programs that are keeping them down but their own flaws.

        PS. wow…you can do so much better than this R.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to roger says:

        So you’re saying you don’t support public internet in libraries?
        Jesus Christ!
        (Note: why are we so okay with internet when we aren’t with phones?)

        Some things are seen as necessary for being a public citizen
        (at some point, a television was one of them. hence emergency broadcasts)
        (at a different point, it was snailmail)Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        I agree it makes sense to supply a system of phones or access to communication to battered women. The conversation started with me saying I believe we are best with a society which expects people to be responsible for themselves. I specifically clarified that in rare cases (battered spouse fleeing from husband without friends and family certainly qualifies) that safety nets are for the exception to the rule.

        I believe the view that POOR people need government supplied phones to enter the work once is absurd and frankly dehumanizing. I am fine with phones for battered women. Do note that battered women is not synonymous with poor, and should not be confused with such despite any potential class overlap.Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        No Kim, I am not saying that. I am even a fan of allowing poor people to use the phone at a library. Seems like a swell idea to me if managed right.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Poor people can seriously benefit from having good phone communication. If someone doesn’t have that it is a major impediment to rising up. If a cheap phone subsidized by the gov can get them the phone that helps them than good. It is dehumanizing to call people retards roger. There is nothing dehumanizing about a simple program that offers someone a simply tangible assistance that allows them TO DO WHAT THEY NEED. Giving someone a cheap phone doesn’t make the calls for them or fill out applications. It is up to the person to move their butt. This simple help just facilitates that activity.

        There is nothing about a cheap phone, or most other gov assistance, that means people aren’t responsible for themselves. Like i said, the phone don’t make calls by themselves. Gov supplied HC doesn’t take people to the doctor by itself or make people take their meds. People are responsible for themselves, they will make of themselves what they will. It seems like the key mistake, or miscommunication to be charitable, is that you ( or many others in general) think that just because someone is aided by a gov program that somehow that are not responsible for themselves and suddenly made helpless. Both of these things are untrue and are more your own projections based on your feelings about government.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to roger says:

        Why the nosiness? Why must it be at a public library?
        Are we that afraid they’ll use it for phonesex?

        I mean, if you’re actually okay with giving them access to
        telephones… why does it have to be in public?

        (these are honest and serious questions. I’m interested in your answers)Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        Of course it is a good idea to have a means of communication. Of course it is wrong to call someone a retard. Politically incorrect too. However it is also not acceptable to create a mentality that people are so *developmentally challenged* as to need a nanny state to hand them a phone on their 18th birthday, or whoa is me, they can’t find a job.

        There is a spectrum that starts with a safety net. Then it extends to coddling which encourages free riding *why should I buy a phone when the govt will buy me one?* Then it turns into real, honest to god pathological altruism.

        Let me be clear. I fully support your and LWAs and NDs right to set up any level of safety net you guys want. What I reject is that you get to set what I see as totally dysfunctional safety net which actively produces dependency and then you want me and those wealthier than you to support it, even though we are convinced it is absurd.

        If you want to coddle, then you pay for it. Otherwise you will never learn. It is too easy to make mistakes when you force others to pay when you are wrong.

        I would like to establish EFFECTIVE SAFETY NETS and foster self sufficiency. Not dependency. And I won’t even force you to pay.Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        Actually, I am recording all calls from libraries and I use them to blackmail people.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:

        the phone don’t make calls by themselves. Gov supplied HC doesn’t take people to the doctor by itself or make people take their meds.

        Government supplied meals don’t cook themselves. Government supplied cars don’t drive themselves. Government supplied home entertainment systems don’t choose their entertainments themselves, and government supplied tanning beds don’t turn themselves on and off. We’re so independent!Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Roger, your first paragraph demonstrated every mistake you are making.Since it is wrong to call someone a retard you shouoldn’t so it. Sometimes somethign is policically incorrect because it is also being a jerk.

        There is nothign a somethign like a cheap phone program or food stamps or uni hc that makes people sporking mentally challeneged. Nice touch to go for a nicer term as if that negates the basic smear. Those things don’t’ make people less at all. Only in yours eyes does getting help like that make them less. I emphasize “in your eyes” because it is all about you looking down on people who get a certain kind of help that you would , of course, naturally never need. Nothing about those programs makes people helpless, in fact they give people more power and control to do what they need. Since you seemed to have missed it before, having a cell means people can call jobs or call their kids schools. The phone doesn’t do it for them, they do it themselves. The person without a means a communication is more helpless then the person with the phone. It they got the phone for a buck through a gov program then they have been empowered, not lessened.

        All you seem to have is buzzwords. Just saying “nanny state” doesn’t prove an argument, it is begging one. No one has said the gov should be handing out phones to 18 years on their birthday. Implying a silly argument that doesn’t exist is a classic tactic of someone floundering without data. Gov programs like the cheap phone program are for people who meet low income requirements, not just every darn kid. That is sort of the point of a social safety net, to be there for people who need it, not for everybody who wants something. But you are just falling back on smears, buzz phrases and a lack of info. For all your pretense you seem to be mouthing the fox news/ rushbo arguments about “those” people being lesser beings crushed by a cheap cell phone or some such without being able to show how that actually works.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Umm no J. That is not where i was going at all. Roger was making some point that if people got a cheap phone through a gov program they were somehow being made helpless. My clear point was that even if someone got a one buck phone they still had to call McD and BK to check on their job apps and call their kids school. They still had complete agency, nothing was taken away from them. In fact they had more power and control over their lives then if they were free from the oppression of a having a cell phone. The phone makes them more independent, not less. It makes them more likely to be able to afford to buy their own brand new shiny iPhone in the future. That is the kind of thing we all want.

        Same deal with Uni HC. If you want to take care of yourself through doc visits, you will if you don’t you won’t. Gives the person more agency. But i am intrigued about your idea of gov giving everybody cars, and i assume giant buckets of soda. Hadn’t really thought of the gov doing that, but now i will.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to roger says:


        Do I think the government a gov subsidized phone should be given to everyone at age 18? Hardly. However, a simple phone, such as a pay as you go phone with maybe 120 minutes on it is part of a hand up, not a hand out, in modern America. For people who are really trying to crawl out of poverty, such a simple thing can make the difference between getting & keeping a job, & not.

        And considering how many perfectly functional phones are effectively thrown away every year in the US, there should be more than enough used phones to supply one to anyone who needs it.Report

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        I didnt call anyone a retard. I said coddling poor people by assuming they need the government to put a phone in their hands creates them. Consider it more of a plea against the creation of developmentally challenged people. Or is that term non PC now too?

        Over the last two days, I am the one who has given data (which you first requested and then dismissed because you didn’t approve of my source even though you had none better. I have also provided extensive support for both my arguments and my recommendations. If anything I am guilty of writing too much, not too little.

        No Greg, the government really should not get into the business of assuming young lower class people entering the job market should be guaranteed the right to a phone. It is a bad idea in my opinion and I have explained why in detail, and almost every detail I gave was because I thought it was bad for the people we were pretending to help. If you want to dismiss several thousand words I have written as some kind of compulsive revulsion of the Nanny state as covered by Fox and Friends then so be it.

        And yes, I was speaking specifically of young poor people entering the workplace. I had already made the claim that it is the responsibility of an adult to earn the money to buy a phone or use their common sense to attain a suitable alternative.

        And before someone else jumps on the thread and says I said nobody ever needs help, or I want to eliminate safety nets, or whatever, please read what I have written on the other post first.

        Finally, I am dandy fine with you buying anyone a phone. Why can’t you be fine with me not buying people phones? You are the one using the compulsion here. The burden of proof and convincing should be on your side of the ledger.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        @roger – From you “..If I was an employer, I would love to know who is so parasitic and incapable of basic social skills that they depended upon a government handout for a phone.

        Creating a government program to supply phones to the social outcasts of the world is the guarantee of a society of dependent retards.”

        Seems pretty nasty and dehumanizing to me.
        This is going nowhere. You keep insisting that somehow the gov is forcing cheap phones on people and taking away their agency. Where actually the program started in response to the problem of some poor people not having good access to phones which was a major sporking hurdle for them. It was a response to a problem and a response that has worked to ameliorate one obstacle to rising up. All your aspersions are based on your projections about what getting something from the gov means. As i’ve said, the person with the one buck gov phone has more agency and control then the person with no communication. It really is as simple as that.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:


        If you give out government soda to the poor you know Kommisar Bloomberg’s shock troops will just stop and frisk everyone until they’ve confiscated it all. 😉

        And don’t worry about my prior comment; I was just feeling silly. I’m fine with cell phones for special cases (although as I said yesterday, I doubt many poor oeople really are finding employment impossible due lack of cell phone),, but I do suspect that once they use those phones to get jobs with which they could get their own phone the argument will shift to how their jobs don’t pay enough so we should keep providing them with phones.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to roger says:

        There’s a whole field of science devoted to such things — like whether lacking a steady address or phone number — can affect your ability to gain employment.

        Sometimes they even do studies and things. You might look them up, as “So we took 200 really poor people and gave 100 of them at random cellphones and checked their employment status at 2, 12, and 20 weeks and here’s what we found” is an awful lot more useful than whether any given individual “feels” such a thing is helpful or not.

        Especially here in America, where we are raised from birth in a culture that still implicitly associates poverty with sin and moral failing.

        Your “feelings” on poverty — it’s existence, what causes it, how to get out of it, the sort of life one has under it — aren’t exactly blank slate to begin with.

        Scratch an average American, and they’ll tell you a very fun story: People they know who are poor — know well — are ‘down on their luck’. They are mostly poor through chance, ill-circumstance, bad luck, bad economy…they are blameless in their poverty.

        The poor they don’t know? Shiftless. Lazy. Drug-users. Sluts. Hedonists. Sinners. They’re poor not through chance, but poor choices, laziness, sin. They are fully responsible for their miserable state.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        You see J, that is why i’m not a fan of federalism. If the Feds can finally start giving out belly buster buckets of soda then they can overrule those darn cities ruled by historys greatest monster. It would be a new birth of freedom when the feds go marching in.

        I’ve seen the kind of cheap phones that those programs offer. My good guess is that as soon as people can ditch them they will.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        J- forgot to say, the program has been around since like 1998 and there hasn’t been the creep toward giving everybody google glasses and personal pizza delivery drones yet. So i’m not that concerned……………………….yet.

        Morat- Very much agree with your post in general especially the last couple para.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to roger says:

        Maybe we should figure out a way to give pop to people who have historically been denied pop.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        Pop? Why are you talking about my grandfather?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to roger says:

        Maybe we can provide decent regional dialects to people who have been burdened with stupid ones.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to roger says:

        I always wondered what it was like to have a regional dialect like those folks in the south or midwest. Irregardless of that…fine with me.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to roger says:

        Maybe we should figure out a way to give pop to people who have historically been denied pop.

        Give them steroids?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        Roger, at some point you’re going to want to start talking about what should be provided in a safety net and leave off spending so much time on what it shouldn’t, if, as I alluded to previously, you want people to actually think the safety net is a priority for you (which I take you to want).

        A lot of this phones/no phones type of discussion I think can be dealt with if we get a little but more down to brass tacks. As James suggests, the ultimate aim here is not for the government to go around handing out Baskets of goods, but to add up the prices in the Poverty Basket of any given time, call that poverty, and then consider ways to provide cash aid in view of that amount (not necessarily equal to it, not necessarily indefinitely, not necessarily without condition, etc.). To some extent, from there, people can figure out what to do about connectivity for job-seeking purposes, etc.

        Yes, we need to talk about what “price” should be added into the Poverty basket for that necessity of life, but it seems like that’s not really the discussion we’re getting hung up on here. I think we’re more stuck on the idea of a government in-kind effort to help people get phones. Again, that’s a legitimate enough topic, but it seems to me like it’s distracting from the basic point that we do agree that there should be some provision for this necessity in the Poverty Basket (I think – or are you flat-out saying hell no to that)?

        I think we’re forgetting the salutary effect that money – as a tool for exchange – can have for this conversation. We don’t have to say, ‘phones or nor no phones.’ We can say, ‘What’s a reasonable dollar amount to put in the Poverty Basket to cover the necessity of communication technology?’

        Then, we can have a separate conversation about whether we support a government program to buy up discarded phones, have them brought back to working order, and offer them at (very) low cost, either on a means-tested basis or just generally, which I agree with Kazzy, seems like a reasonable for the government to consider doing.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to roger says:

        @Michael Drew

        As James suggests, the ultimate aim here is not for the government to go around handing out Baskets of goods, but to add up the prices in the Poverty Basket of any given time, and give out that much cash.

        This isn’t self-evident for me given the fact that different people have different opportunities to meet the necessities of the poverty basket, and I think that’s what Roger is getting at. Consider an investment banker who decides to throw it all away to live in a tent in Tompkins Square Park, should he be automatically qualified for a poverty basket’s amount of cash? Should his fellow tent-mates that have no education or family connections get the same amount as he does? I don’t see how we can distribute this cash without also accounting for the opportunities that each person has in getting the cash on their own.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:


        I personally would be fine with it after the point at which he has sufficiently little wealth from investment banking saved up that he actually qualifies for aid (though I would hardly expect much agreement that the amount of cash aid should add up to the price of the Poverty Basket; see infra). Obviously, your view will b whatever it is.

        But, as you will see if you look at that part of the comment again, I will admit that I revised my comment to reflect what I realized right away was a wild overstatement of any consensus on the parameters of a cash safety net that we might be developing (and also to reflect that I conflated Roger’s vocal advocacy for a cash safety net with James’ method for measuring poverty. Presumably in practice those conversations are going to be pretty closely related to each other, but for a moment I simply merged them, which is certainly an error). There might be various restriction we might put on aid given to those below the poverty line, and I wouldn’t expect the amount to be fully equal to the Poverty Basket amount; just that the Poverty Basket amount would inform our deliberation on the amount.

        I was in a big hurry when I initially wrote, so I beg yours & the site’s pardon for committing such an egregious error and correcting it without prominent announcement.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        …But to address your substantive question more directly, ultimately, no, I wouldn’t support a special “opportunity” bar to receiving benefits to try to prevent people with particularly good opportunities to work for high pay, like experienced investment bankers, from opting out of their careers and seeking public benefits. Whatever the conditions on aid we agree to for everyone, I’d apply to them to. If they were so motivated to divest themselves of enough of their wealth to qualify for aid, so be it. I don’t anticipate that being a particularly large problem.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        …Which is to say, we’re not going to have a system that treats every person perfectly justly according to their own capabilities or opportunities and might not in many instances treat people with greater opportunities the same as it does people with lesser opportunities (when arguably perfect justice perhaps might require they be discriminated from one another). That’s just called slack in the system, or operational imperfection, or whatever you want to call it. If you want to have a system at all, you’re going to have to accept a system that has some slack in it. If the possibility of investment bankers opting out and eventually being able to take public benefits causes you to be against having a cash safety net, then you’re just against having a cash safety net. Which is perfectly fine!Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to roger says:


        No worries, I took your comment as a way of thinking about the problem not as a proscription. To the point, I see no justice in giving the person that explicitly wants to stay in “poverty” (that is, not pursue any of the components of the poverty basket) the same amount of money as a person who both desires and acts to pull themselves out of poverty. There is a social contract implicit in welfare which is to pull yourself out of it and provide for others in turn, and a system that does not distinguish between those two types of people is effectively taking money from those who follow the contract and giving it to those who do not – a fundamental injustice. To be sure, this isn’t an argument from practicality or utility: it may be impossible to quantify how much opportunity a person has to get out of poverty, or the slumming banker may be so rare as to not justify the effort (the slack that you’re talking about). But when we’re considering a hypothetical descriptive metric I think it’s reasonable to discuss the optimal characteristics that it should capture, and I don’t see how a metric that puts the slumming banker and the guy who just got laid off on equal footing can be considered either accurate or just.

        Essentially, when you say “I personally would be fine with it after the point at which he has sufficiently little wealth from investment banking saved up that he actually qualifies for aid,” I see no reason to ignore the education and personal connections that this guy has also “saved up”, which are often much more valuable than the number in his bank account.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:


        In principle I don’t have much of a problem with doing that. it might marginally increase the ‘justice’ with which the program operates. In practice, how the hell would you do that though? For me, it’s not worth the sweat of even thinking about, because I’m not in this to maximize justice; I’m in it to alleviate suffering. If some weirdo drops out of IBing to navigate the byzantine process that will surely accompany whatever system we establish (which will be worth it to people who really face material privation and don’t have good ways to alleviate it (even if it feels like privation only because of the affluence of the rest of society) and successfully gets enrolled and starts receiving sub-poverty-level benefits, well, good for him. Seems like a strange and unlikely choice to me. If it really happens, I regard that as just part of the CoDB. Others can regard it as they choose.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        Maybe you used the wrong example, trizzlor. What about the 54 year-old ex-con janitor making $27,000 a year? Again, I wasn’t insisting on a no-conditions program, but if we had one, why wouldn’t he just opt out? Well, he might. I completely understand that some people would have a serious problem with this. I guess I’m just different. It’s not the ideal outcome for me, but it’s not a moral nightmare, either. I’m willing to pay the ex-con who’s sick of janitoring a sub-poverty stipend to sit on his ass and think about what might be a better way to employ his time, and let someone who’s at least enthusiastic about the now-open janitor job to apply for it on his own volition do that job and get what he can get out of it. and that person will be helping me to pay for the ex-con’s thinktime.

        That’s a grave injustice and the beginnings of societal moral collapse for some folks. Not for me. I don’t know what else to tell ya.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to roger says:


        Perhaps this is too complex a metric to actually use for dealing out the goods, but we can still use it as a retrospective measure of how good various policies are doing. In the simplest case, we just send out a questionnaire to people below a certain income level and ask if they’re at that income level by choice or by lack of opportunity, then we count the former as the true fraction of people in poverty. Or we use a combination of features to define someone who is voluntarily poor: take people of median income and identify the dominant factors – race, education, health, family structure, etc. – then exclude all the people in poverty who meet or surpass those criteria as effectively voluntarily poor. Anything that takes into consideration the fact that poverty is both a lack of goods and a lack of opportunity to attain those goods.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        We can certainly attempt to note it (I suspect the difficulties won’t be that much less significant in assessment mode than in design mode), but if we explicitly disclaim the program from accounting for those things, the terms of assessment won’t leave a lot of room to hold those results against the program. But certainly if they are significant, that could be considered when the design comes up for reassessment (i.e. after the part of the assessment where you’re looking at whether the program did what it was meant to do, when (if) you’re considering whether you want to actually adjust the objectives, rather than just tweak the design to better achieve the initial objectives).Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to roger says:

        …”Voluntarily poor” is an interesting construction, btw: I had been considering designs in which the default would be non-enrollment, and the enrollment process at least fairly involved, if not onerous. In such a situation, anyone who’s voluntarily poor can easily remain so and not participate in the program. if they voluntarily participate, presumably they’re not voluntarily poor. But there are certainly design concepts where income support would be the default – in particular, a tax-administration-based guaranteed minimum income or negative income tax system. In such a system, presumably if you file a tax return (or maybe if you ever have at all, or are registerd in Social Security or suchlike), you’d receive $X per year, less the amount of your tax assessment in the relevant (presumably federal) jurisdiction, no matter what your income [EDIT: No, that doesn’t sound right. The difference between income and poverty level? I’m always confused about this.] (which adds an interesting wrinkle to the ex-con janitor’s incentive structure – he gets the few hundred or a thousand each month regardless, which is no guarantee he wouldn’t leave janitoring behind, but something of an incentive not to). The default there would probably be enrollment, and the involved process would be declining the support. In that case, you would probably be dealing with some number of people who are voluntarily poor and receiving unwanted benefits.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to LWA says:

      I dunno LWA, I think you’ve leaped waaaay beyond poverty amelioration and safety nets into a whole different ball park. The major appeal of economics is it’s measurable and generally applicable. Once you’re talking about status and social interactions nothing becomes standard.

      Also conservatives and Libertarians strike me as being on near unassailable ground when they ask incredulously if the state really has some moral obligation not merely to keep you from falling below some minimum floor of starvation/privation/exposure but to make you feel good about yourself?Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to North says:

        I agree that having a measurable way to discuss public policy is essential.

        However, part of this is how we see the concept and purpose of the state.

        I believe that the state can, and often does, legitimately represent the goals and desires of society- and that the purpose of having it is to achieve very-hard-to-quantify goals such as “brotherhood” and “respect for human dignity” or the “flourishing of the human spirit”.

        Of course there are very real limits to what can be effected by what means. Which is where politics and the continual reassessment of socities progress comes in. What was an effective solution yesterday might be completely inappropriate today.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to North says:

        the purpose of having it is to achieve very-hard-to-quantify goals such as “brotherhood” and “respect for human dignity” or the “flourishing of the human spirit”.

        Read in the context of the OP, then, it seems the state is doomed to fail in its purpose.

        I mean that seriously.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        LWA: I respect your position but I’m skeptical. When you say “everyone should be able to have enough to eat without any danger of starving” you’re on pretty much universal ground. Some people may disagree that people should be provided (by others) food to eat but individually you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who says “food? No thanks, I’d rather starve”.

        I agree the state can and does represent the goals and desires of society but I’d submit that those goals individually are negating. Some people want to mingle and be social all the time; some people long for solitude and would view a highly social life a special kind of hell (and the other way around as well).

        I don’t thing government can provide that kind of fraternity and brotherhood and flourishing to people directly without imposing on significant numbers of people great and unpleasant oppression. I do think government could provide the room for people to attend to their own individual and unique needs for flourishing.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to North says:

        I agree, actually, that there is a mile of difference between the state taking an interest in, and having a desire to promote something, and actually providing it.

        I think there is something positive about the state having a viewpoint, being “non-agnostic”:
        e.g., marriage and family formation is a good thing, so we craft certain financial and legal advantages to it, while balancing the desires and interests of those who don’t want to partake in it.

        The same rules and regulations and subsidies that are often (rightfully) criticized, can also have a beneficial effect of giving shape and form to the cultural aspirations of the citizens.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to LWA says:

      I think you’ve got something important there, but I’m not sure poverty is the right word for it. I think you’re talking more about class than wealth or income.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James K says:

        “Cultural Capital” covers some of it.

        When Maribou and I got married, she didn’t have a job and I had just started making $12/hr. We lived in an apartment complex where an apartment cost $330/month (but that included heat). The apartment complex was full of people who were also paying $330/month.

        We had a lot more cultural capital than the other folks, though.Report

    • Avatar LWA in reply to LWA says:

      The marriage-is-a-luxury argument strikes me also as completely backwards.
      I would say rather that single parenthood is a luxury that only the rich can afford- it impoverishes anyone else who attempts it.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LWA says:

        “[Marriage as a luxury item] strikes me as backwards.” -Trumwill

        “The marriage-is-a-luxury argument strikes me also as completely backwards.” – LWA

        Hey! We do agree sometimes!Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to LWA says:

        Not just backwards, but perhaps frightening. That is, if the attitude is a widespread reality and not just a rumor.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LWA says:

        I’m actually reading/listening to Jon Last’s “What To Expect When No One’s Expecting” which – while primarily about reproductive demographics and the causes thereof, also – explores marital demographics. He makes the point that rather than being an intellectual or enlightened choice by counterculture types, the falls in marriage rates started at the bottom of the economic ladder and have been moving up ever since. Which is itself interesting, because more often than not historically family formation trends start at the top and drift downward.

        Which in a way does vindicate the “marriage as a luxury” view, in thatReport

  10. Avatar LWA says:

    In a different direction, one thing even we liberals often forget is that poverty is as often a symptiom of some underlying problem, which is why it is so often foolishness to think we can fix it by throwing money at it.
    It isn’t callous to suggest that many people are poor because their lives are in chaos and disarray- not a moral failing, and certainly not something we should shrug off, but simply assuming that adding a zero to someone’s bank account will fix things is oftentimes an error.

    As I mentioned on the other thread, there are as many causes of poverty as their are poor people- some definitely can be helped by a simple redistribution scheme, while others need more serious help.

    Which is why the cries of “Just write a check!” or “Let them start a business”” is just a handwaing desire for a magic bullet. Maybe poverty can’t be “cured” but it can and does respond well to a sustained committed effort.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LWA says:

      MC Hammer provided a fairly interesting example of what might happen if you gave a person who grew up in poverty 33 million dollars.

      Five years later, he was in debt for 13 million.

      Now we might be tempted to say that MC Hammer isn’t representative of much of anything at all… but there are also a large number of examples of lottery winners who, overnight, become rich… and, a handful of years later, are filing for bankruptcy.

      There’s something going on here.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        It happens with athletes a lot too. As much of it seems to stem from generosity (or not being able to say “no”) as it does from simply managing money poorly.

        Again, I think this is the sort of thing you’re going to see when people who have very little control over the quality of their lives suddenly have more control than they could possibly exercise. I imagine people who have been poor all their lives who are given just a bit of control don’t behave much differently than people who were poor all their lives and worked their way out of poverty and into wealth (as rare as such people are), which is to say, I don’t think they’ll behave the same way lottery winners, MC Hammers, and Antoine Walkers do, in general.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

        Well, there are also some fundamental financial literacy things that a great many number of people lack. This might be disproportionately true for the lower classes, but I’ve seen it cut across all lines.

        A $30M contract doesn’t mean you can go out and buy $30M worth of stuff. Your take home is closer to half that, less still if you had an agent negotiate the deal. Oh, and that $10M house costs a lot more than $10M if you take out a mortgage. Etc.

        Soooooo many people lack even this fundamental understanding of personal finances. And a great number of the people who do understand it have come to that understanding slowly through interacting with the system. “Hey, I thought I was getting $5/hour and I worked 10 hours this week, why is my check for $42.” “Ugh, that $200 stereo ended up costing me $420 after all the interest it accrued because I couldn’t pay it back. Lesson learned!” Etc.

        If you don’t learn the lesson until after you got your $30M contract and your name is dry on the mortgage agreement for the $10M house, the stakes are much higher.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

        I heard a similar things happen to people who win the lottery big. Even people who grew up lower-middle class or above rather than in poverty have problems dealing with getting lots of money at once. The tendency seems to spend and do everything or get everything you previously couldn’t afford rather than save most of it.

        If I every win big at the lottery, the first thing I’m going to do is consult somebody trustworthy and find out how I can make this money last as long as possible.Report

  11. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    I’m very sensitive to vaguely-worded goals. And this isn’t just a personal tick, if you don’t specify your goals properly, you have little to no chance of actually achieving them.

    Amen. A useful mnemonic for setting and achieving goals is SMART: make goals specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

    But in response to James K’s proposal, I’m skeptical about relevance. I’m fully on board with the basket of goods measure, but dubious about the overly comparative aspect of it. That is, the emphasis above necessity and on what are effectively middle class goods (Smith’s leather shoes and linen shirts). At the point we’re effectively defining poverty as anything sub-middle class we have the same perversity as the OECD measure–if suddenly more people can’t afford some item, but realize they can’t live without it, poverty diminishes even though people can afford less.

    And of course we still have the weirdness that in the future people with air conditioning, an affordable 5,000 square foot house, plenty of affordable nutritious food, free high-quality comprehensive health care, and 12 weeks of paid vacation per year could be defined as in poverty because unlike the top 90% of the population they don’t have a hovercar. Any system that allows for that logical extension needs a modification, some supplemental limiting mechanism to prevent us from reaching such silliness.

    For example, I have neither a hi-def TV nor a game system, and I’m amazed at how many people look at me in amazement. They can hardly imagine life without such things. The logic built into James’s basket is that if enough people share that amazement and inability to imagine life without those toys, then poverty, which once meant the inability to afford basic necessities like food and shelter, becomes inability to afford toys that can’t reasonably be defined as essential to life.

    And while I’m a big fan of Adam Smith and unequivocally make use of his understanding of wealth as the ability to command the goods and services we desire, it has its own built-in perversity: the person who has very little money but no desire for the goods and services the world has to offer is wealthy. And interestingly, that dovetails with a particular liberal view that s very appealing to me, the “less us more” or ” downsizing” ideal. For any guven level of income, one way to become wealthier is to want less stuff. This liberal impulse is at odds with the liberal impulse to define poverty in terms based on how much stuff other people have. (Which isn’t to try to damn liberalism or liberals–all isms and all people have some conflicting values/ideals, so liberals/liberalism can’t hope to avoid some, and pointing them out is only noting that they’re as human as anyone else.)Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      I suspect one could get a pretty good empirical measure of what constitutes the material conditions of poverty (again, the material conditions can’t possibly be all we consider in a definition of poverty, or we will have failed to produce a fully useful definition) is to ask people who are on the edge of poverty, which is to say, people who basically live month to month or who only have a couple month’s worth of savings, the order in which they would drop things that they have to pay for regularly, and the reverse order of this would give us our priorities in determining the contents of the basket. “The internet goes first, then the phone, then the gas, then clothes, then the lights, then food, then the rent,” or something like that. There’d be noise in the measure (it’s easier to find food without money than it is to find a place to live without it, unless you have family nearby, so things like that will result in people having different lists), but I bet you’d get a pretty good idea of what people who aren’t going without are afraid of being without.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Chris says:

        Good approach. My only quibble is that we would do better if we can actually observe the choices they do make, instead of their claims about what choices they would make. You know the methodological issue. But even if we can’t observe the real choices, your approach is a step forward.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        I like the idea of doing it observationally, though that would require a lot of legwork.

        This also allows the people in or closest to the situation to be prime determinants for how we resolve it. We’re not observing their situation through the prism of a different class norm.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Chris says:

        We’re not observing their situation through the prism of a different class norm.

        Good point.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Kazzy, exactly. As someone who lived in a neighborhood whose residents were mostly poor or near poor, and who has spent some time poor himself, I still don’t feel very comfortable “defining poverty,” in part because it is dynamic (as several people have noted), but also because if you are not right there next to it, it’s hard to understand, even if you’ve been right there next to it before. It’s an anxiety that people who have not been at least close to being poor can’t understand, and people who have been but aren’t anymore can only partially understand. Sort of like pain: when it is gone, you can’t really remember what it was like, even if you remember how deeply unpleasant and anxiety-inducing it was.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        I struggle with the idea of a “poverty line”. On this side of the line, you are poor, but on that side of the line, you are not. I recognize you need to make delineations at some point (sand grains and heaps and what not), but I tend to see it more as a spectrum. I also think this view is useful because what the guy at the very, very, very bottom needs is going to be different than the guy just on the edge needs. Not just in terms of amount, but also type and method and what not.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      I think an issue of liberalism is who is comfortable with materialism and who is uncomfortable with materialism.

      I’m comfortable with materialism or at least using materialist comforts as a good measuring stick for a middle class life. Railings against consumerism confuse me. Mainly because I am not really the hippie type and my idea of a good life does not involve home-made jam (unless purchased at a farmer’s market) or gardening. Nor does it involve making my own clothing or thrift shopping.

      Other liberals tend towards the hippie.

      But I think James K is ignoring other perverse reasons for poverty and that is the psychological need to have an other to vilify and deny. I think prejudice and poverty go hand in hand. See my post below for more thoughts on the matter and this is much harder to deal with.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:

        I think I agree. I’m not sure how many liberals hold these conflicting views (which isn’t in itself a very big deal), vs. how much of it is different liberals holding the different views. So I carefully fudged that with my clever liberals/liberalism. 😉

        Odd, perhaps, that as a libertarian I’m less comfortable with materialism than you. But then my idea of a good time is a wilderness trip with minimal equipment, and I grew up with a garden and homemade jam. So it’s probably more about formative experiences than ideology.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Like I said in the original post, the form of liberalism that does not like materialism isn’t really liberalism. It comes from ideologies that are further from the left than liberalism but get confused as such. Liberals have always been comfortable with widespread material prosperity since the arouse as an ideology. Even when modern liberalism appeared in the late 19th century, with its call for greater government action than previously allowed in liberal thought, the idea was to make the middle class as broad as possible rather than eliminate consumerism.

        Its the various ideologies of the Far Left and Far Right that are anti-materialism becuause of their disdain for modernity.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        I’m a city boy through and through. My idea of a good time is checking out a special exhibit at the Met, or MOMA, or seeing a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from an acclaimed international theatre group like Propeller or Cheek by Jowl.
        Or browsing through bookstore stacks. Combined with dinner at a restaurant, drinks, and discussion.

        This also makes me different from many city-dwellers as well.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        Oh, I like that, too. The wife and I are going to have a nice dinner and see Wicked for our anniversary date this weekend. But a week in the city will wear me down a lot more than a week in the wilderness will.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        James, one of my problems with being against materialism is that its really hard to define what materialism beyond vagaries. I’m not really into recreational shopping and really don’t feel the need to get the latest gadgets or most fashionable clothing. I receive my first Kindle as a holiday gift from work and only updated to Kindle Fire because my kindle broke, my warranty ran out, and I needed a new one. Upgrading to a Kindle Fire seemed like a good idea at the time. To this extent I’m not really materialist.

        At the same time my hobby, partner dancing, is probably one of the most expensive hobbies out there. The lessons cost money and doing competitions cost serious money, especially when you get into the silver and gold levels and need to buy tails. If I was a woman, dancing would be even more expensive because the gowns necessary for competition are in thousands. This isn’t materialistic in the strictest sense because dancing involves an actual activity but people really into it spend lots of money on it and that counts as materialism to an extent.

        In fact, most hobbies or past times are subject to commercialization. On Lawyers, Guns, and Money there was a recent thread on how nerd fandom is different than sports fandom because sports fans are more dependent on corporations and sports fandom is more passive. I argued against this by pointing out that Japanese nerddom has long been commercialized and the only reason American fandom wasn’t earlier was because of geography and density issues.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:

        Happy Anniversary!

        If people were meant to rough it, people would not have invented 5 star hotels


        Seriously though, I don’t need that much luxury always. Something above a hostel though. I’m too old for hostels.

        City life does not wear me out.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        I’m not really against materialism, I just don’t have much interest in it. Which isn’t to claim I live a minimalist lifestyle. Heck, just last week I dropped $300+ on an air compressor and set of nailguns. But it’s actually something I should have done years ago, as I try to renovate a 140 year old house, and I’ve only done it because of increasing pain from using a hammer. So I’m neither a chaser of all the latest goodies nor a dyed-in-the-wool anti-materialist.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:

        What I am largely interested in is the psychology of materialism. Lee pointed this out.

        There are people who will mock someone for spending 500 dollars on a pair of shoes but then talk about their new video game system or tablet. Or even more expensive tattoo.

        All of these things are materialistic to me but people find a way to say that their materialism is better than another persons.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:

        Very true. Just as I cleverly justified my own type of materialism.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Lee, have you read any Marcuse?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chris, I probably read Marcuse during college but I can’t remember. I am aware of the Frankfurt School’s criticism of popular culture and think it ultimately derives from Plato’s discussion of the cave in the Republic.

        My least favorite aspect of Marxist philosophy is how they handle cultural issues. I think that the Marxist approach to how people spend their free time has been a long mitigated disaster because it goes against what people actually want most of the time. They try to fit all leisure and culture through a Marxist paradigm and as a result nearly everything fun gets treated as bourgeoisie decadence. I’m not even sure that Marx would approve of this.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Lee, I’d be interested in your theory on the connection between the Frankfurt School and the cave allegory.

        I asked because Marcuse (and others in the Frankfurt School, but particularly Marcuse) goes into great length about materialism in political philosophy (which would include both existing forms of socialism and communism at the time, as well as capitalism), and gives a lengthy critique and criticism of consumerism.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Also, there are two ways that “fun” can cost money. In one case, it simply costs money because we live in a system in which access to things — places, basic materials, even time — costs money, and in the other, it costs money because the fun involves conspicuous consumption of resources. I think a critique, which is not necessarily a blanket condemnation, of the latter is possible without even touching on the former.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        This bears no real relation to your point, but there’s another way entertainment costs, which is the opportunity cost of foregone revenue from working those hours instead. (One of the best things when I worked as a bike messenger was that I could forgo income on any given day and spend my time in various entertainments. And I know a contractor who simply won’t take a job if he’d rather do something recreatiobal that day.)Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        The corollary to that is that we would all suffer breakdowns and be less productive if we just worked all the time.

        This is why I get annoyed by articles like “How much a hangover costs the economy?” Humans are economic actors but we are more than economic actors. Just reducing people to how productive they are, saps away what makes us human. It turns us into cogs in a machine.

        Last week I spent most of the week working 11-14 hours a day because of extra assignments. I often tried to do finish as quickly as possible but there were a few days when I needed to take a three hour break in the middle of the afternoon from being burnt out. By Sunday, I was miserable.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chris, if I’m remembering correctly, and its been years since I read the Republic, Plato used the cave allegory to show how the “wrong” pastimes and leisure can prevent people from seeing the truth by creating a false illusion. Its actually very similar to some of the beliefs found in Dharmic religions like Buddhism. Many Marxists, most prominently the Frankfurt School, have argued that the entire edifice of popular culture and consumerism creates an illusion that prevents the working class from recognizing the true nature of their exploitment. The basic idea is that there is the “truth” out there but people can’t recognize it because they are blinded by the illusion of popular culture and entertainment.

        I’m against this because I don’t think its really true. Its pretty easy to find people who enjoy pop culture and consumerism and realize and/or think that they are exploited. That is they really the “truth”. It also runs against my instinct that people should basically be allowed to live as they see fit. I don’t want anybody intruding what I find fun, partner dancing, and saying that I can’t do it anymore because of its classcist and gendered history. Likewise, I should generally not argue against other people’s idea of fun. If people like recreational shopping than so be it.

        The only legitimate criticism of consumerism comes from an environmental/ecological point of view in my opinion. Its true that too much consumerism can take a heavy and poisonous toll on the environment. However, the goal should be finding a way to reduce the ecological toll of consumerism rather than get rid of it and make everybody a hippie because that is imposing one group’s defintion of happiness on other people.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        I concur with your statement.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        I agree and started to work that caveat in–because I was surevI’d be called on it!–before deciding not to. I’m pretty sure there’s a curve defining that tradeodd, but I’m headachy and can’t think of it today.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chris, I’d also argue that nearly all forms of fun require the conspicuous consumption of resources. To use one example, sex. At the first sex doesn’t seem like it would involve the consipicuous consumption of resources. All you need are two or more willing participants and a room. However, unprotected sex has two downsides that need to be protected against, unwanted pregnancies and STDs. Assuming that the sex in quesiton is heterosexual; the women should be on the pill and the men using condoms. Condoms require latex, which involves harvesting it from rubber trees, etc. Pills also require the consumption of resources to make the pills.

        Going into a more innocent direction, making music with other people. Unless everybody is singing, you are going to need instruments. This requires the consumption of wood, metals, and others materials to make the instruments. These materials could probably be put into a more utilitarian use than a musical instrument. Are all musical instruments an example of conspicuous consumption of resources?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        A small quibble. Consumption, yes, but not “conspicuous” consumption. The term was coined by Veblen to indicate consumption whose primary purpose was to demonstrate wealth. His clasic example was the gentleman’s walking stick–not a cane.

        The walking stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure.

        So a purse is consumption, but a Prada handbag is conspicuous consumption. My functional but mass-produced Washburn acoustic guitar is consumption, but when I use it to entertain myself, it’s hardly conspicuous.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to NewDealer says:

        A 30-pack of Keystone? Fifteen dollars.

        Edit: So I have heard.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        James, I’m aware of Veblein and the liberal side of me is still kind of concerned. A lot of people on the Far Left really don’t make a distinction betwen consipicuous consumption and consumption. I’m sure a really radical feminist could come up with an ideological denounciation of all purses even if they aren’t Prada because of something historical. Its really hard to tell what the line between consumption and consipicuous consumption is.

        My general belief is that as long as people don’t impose on others or as long as their fun and happiness doesn’t involve intentionally hurting others, its best not to be judgmental about these things.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Lee, re: Plato. That makes sense, though I don’t think that’s precisely what Plato was on about. Also, I don’t think the Frankfurt people, or Socrates, would find the notion that at least some people are aware of the fact that they’re seeing only the shadows and choose to continue looking at the shadows inconsistent with the theory. In fact, Socrates makes this point, though he further argues (and perhaps the Frankfurters would as well) that if that person spent some time out in the sun, he or she would eventually come to realize that the world of the sun was better.

        Also, I know a lot of people on the left treat consumption that is not conspicuous as bourgeois, because it is consumption that is not available to the proletariat (e.g., only someone who has the creature comforts of the middle class would find roughing it for a weekend “fun”), but I don’t think that’s a critique of “fun,” or even “consumption,” as much as it is a critique of the inequalities that make it possible for certain types of activities to be fun for some people but not for others.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to NewDealer says:

        I feel the same way about consumerism that you do NewDealer. Every time I hear someone rail against consumerism, all i hear is “How dare people want things I don’t want them to want”, at which point I tune out.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        I think Lee pointed out that environmentalism and health and safety issues are the best arguments against consumerism but the solution is to change those instead of getting rid of consumerism.

        I wonder how much of it relates back to High School social structures. In high school, fashion and clothing are usually/stereotypically connected to the mean kids/jocks/cheerleader set. So this is where an adverse relationship can form.

        Though you can get into a lot of debates about whether we should care about dress codes at certain events or not. Californians are more casual about clothing in ways that raise my New Yorker eyebrows. This isn’t to say they behave badly but I have an innate reaction of “You don’t wear bowling shirts to weddings when the invite says semi-formal”.

        I often wonder if it is wrong of me to believe in those things. There are certainly socio-economic implications.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        The argument against consumerism that I am most familiar with is that we are being manipulated into a hierarchy of wants that are determined by people who profit from it. That we associate happiness with the possession of new items and better stuff, but the happiness is necessarily fleeting, leading to a treadmill of consumption that doesn’t make us happy in any meaningful sense.

        The main problem I have with the argument has been outlined here. The ability to distinguish between consumerism and, you know, the utility and enjoyment of stuff and doing stuff. That and… I’m not sure I like the alternatives.

        Plug: Nation of Rebels, by Joseph Heath and Andrew PotterReport

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chris, I disagree to an extent. I think that a lot of people on the Left rally against consumption because they are against it in general and not just because its outside the grasp of the proletariat. A lot of consumption is within the grasp of the proletariat and you still have people on the Left rallying against it and arguing that we should all adopt a non-consumerist hippie-like lifestyle. This is particularly common among Anarchists and the more environmentally-oriented Left.

        The attitude towards various Communist countries towards consumerism, especially the East Asian ones, showed a problem with consumerism in general.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to NewDealer says:

        It really is far more than just lefties who are down on consumerism. There are plenty on the right especially many socons are against and try to live a less material life.

        I’m a Less is More kind of guy. I find most possessions don’t bring joy and as a people we collect tons of stuff that doesn’t do anything for us. Most of us are better with less stuff. Of course which stuff is good and isn’t is the hard part since some material things lead to great enjoyment and true pleasure. So its up to each one of us to decide what is of value and isn’t.

        The leftie critique of consumer culture does miss on a few points, the most pertinent of which is the excessive focus on businesses manipulating us into buying stuff. Of course businesses try to manipulate us (its called advertising) and they use every conscious and unconscious trick that can be devised to do so. I’m not fond of that and i think many conservatives are bit to unthinking about the effects of business tactics. However much people try to manipulate us we still do have agency though, which to many on the Left downplay.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        Greg is correct that there is some criticism of the consumer culture from the socon right, as well.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chomskyans, or at least Chomsky himself, certainly seem to treat us as passive agents, but I’m not sure the rest of the left does. A big part of Marxist philosophies (and Marxist adjacent ones) has always been the interplay of agency and structures, and later agencies embedded in a social world.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        greginak, another thing that the Left misses with consumer culture is that things like mass entertainment and consumer culture are pretty much as old as human civilization. Granted they are more prevelant in some civilization than others but the Roman Empire, various Chinese dynasties (especially the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties), and Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate had their own pre-industrial versions of popular culture and consumer society. They seem to develop naturally once a society reaches a ceratin level of prosperity and urbanization.

        greginak, I recognize that anti-consumerism exists on the right to but it tends to be different than the leftist version.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to NewDealer says:

        I do oppose consumerism, but it comes primarily from my Christian faith rather than my leftism (although the two tie together pretty strongly). Essentially, it comes down to “a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions”. We shouldn’t primarily (or even secondarily) derive our pleasure from the stuff that we own, and we shouldn’t get highly attached to our possessions. The other part of the belief, which ties in with the leftism, is that spending frivolously when there are people who lack basic necessities, rather than sharing with those in need, is an immoral use of money. But even if the world reached a state of zero poverty, I’d still believe there’s a value to limiting our consumption.

        Of course, I’m inconsistent about this. I own a lot more than I need, and I love travel, which is a different kind of consumption and plenty expensive in itself. But I try to ask myself “Do I need this?” and “A year from now, will I still be happy that I bought this?” when I want to buy something new.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      It makes sense to me that a bigot is not going to want the victims of his or her prejudices to have a decent life.Report

    • For any guven level of income, one way to become wealthier is to want less stuff. This liberal impulse

      I don’t really recognize that as a liberal impulse. If anything, it sounds conservative to me. I’ve seen it in a lot of hippies, but that doesn’t make it liberal itself. My experience is that lots of hippie/nature-loving types’ views have a lot of traditionalist and even conservative ideals at their core as much as liberal ones. You may have heard this dictum from people who are by-and-large liberals, but (as you say) that might only reflect inconsistency within those people’s sets of views (if it does at all), not necessarily within the ideology.

      Not that liberalism doesn’t have its share inconsistencies, but I don’t even recognize this as a regular part of the liberal corpus of ideas, or as a common view among liberals. It seems more like the idiosyncratic view of some liberals (or people we might term as liberals, but who might be as likely as not, in my experience, to dispute that label – and owing in my experience, not to their liberalism, but to their anti-consumerism, their being hippies, or just their general crunchiness).

      Shorter me: in my experience, that’s a hippie thing, not a liberal thing.Report

  12. Avatar roger says:

    Awesome post, James. Simply awesome.Report

  13. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I like your poverty buckets idea and the Adam Smith definitions like many people here.

    I always thought the one of the best books written about Poverty and the Poor was The Road to Wigan Pier by Orwell especially this passage:

    “The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on
    brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less
    money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A
    millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an
    unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of
    the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say
    when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to
    eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is
    always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth
    of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and
    we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are
    at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you
    to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than
    brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery
    that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the
    English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a
    temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.”

    I would eliminating poverty requires eliminating the factors of misery described above.

    Now I also agree with Damon that figuring out the standards is sadly going to be a Gorgon’s knot. What is adequate healthcare will soon become an ideological battle. Same with other issues.

    There are aspects of dealing with poverty that are much harder than the concepts you describe above. Somethings cannot be measured. These are how do we deal with bigotry and racism and villianizing of the other. We have discussed before that the best welfare states tend to be in very homogeneous countries. Homogeneous countries also tend to have more compassionate criminal justice systems that focus on rehabilitation over incarceration/punishment. They tend to spend money more on education.

    Sadly I think a lot of the reasons the US lacks a welfare state is because of our ethnic diversity. There is a lot of psychological feeling of taking money from earners and giving it to the undeserving (read ethnic others). This is why Social Security and Unemployment Insurance are popular while Universal Healthcare are not in the U.S.

    Last week, there was a big story in the New Yorker about Civil Forfeiture laws. They are used almost everywhere but the real abuses tend to be in the rural South (the article did contain shocking stories from Philadelphia and Detroit). This victims tend to be poor, black, and Hispanic. Though some really are fighting and trying to build middle class lives for themselves. One story involved a couple that had a lot of cash because they were going to buy a car. The cop said he smelt an “odor of marijuana” and the couple lost their cash.

    On the Slate poltiical gabfest, one of the commentators observed that whenever a black middle-class begins to emerge “the South finds a new way to smack it down”. I cannot disagree with this assessment or observation. You could often expand it to the North as well. The Philadelphia story involved an elderly African-American couple fighting to keep their home because their son sold a little marijuana from the front porch.

    I am sympathetic to your belief in measurements but I think part of the reasons for the existence of poverty extend beyond the material. They are rooted in the psychological. The tribal nature of humans. The need to have an other to vilify, racism, bigotry, thoughts of deserving and undeserving of certain things.

    You can’t deal with the above through measurements or economics.Report

    • Avatar roger in reply to NewDealer says:

      “…eliminating poverty requires eliminating the factors of misery described above.”

      Most importantly, 99% of the emphasis should be on every individual being first and foremost responsible to pull themselves out of poverty, then their family, then their neighbors. Safety nets and larger scale efforts are for the 1% that fall through the cracks, with careful emphasis that the nets do not create perverse incentives that expand the 1%.

      “There are aspects of dealing with poverty that are much harder than the concepts you describe above. Some things cannot be measured. These are how do we deal with bigotry and racism and villianizing of the other.”

      I am worried much more about systemic discrimination of ugly people. Why am I the only one worried about the ugly? Perhaps because you can’t build a party base around ugly people. Nobody will admit to being a member.

      “We have discussed before that the best welfare states tend to be in very homogeneous countries. Homogeneous countries…tend to spend money more on education.”

      We spend more on education than anywhere. Indeed, our problem is waste, fraud, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Do you just make this stuff up?

      “Sadly I think a lot of the reasons the US lacks a welfare state is because of our ethnic diversity.”

      You are actually pining FOR a welfare state? I assumed we wanted to eliminate poverty, or make steady measurable progress as per above. You want to create a welfare state? OMG!

      “… I think part of the reasons for the existence of poverty extend beyond the material. They are rooted in the psychological. The tribal nature of humans. The need to have an other to vilify, racism, bigotry, thoughts of deserving and undeserving of certain things.”

      So the huge strides at improving standards of living for the first time ever in 13.8 billion years, with the US leading the way for the past century must make you pretty proud…no? The fact that our multicultural poor are better off than 90% of the world must make you simply glow with happiness…right?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to roger says:

        I think we long determined that we view these things differently.

        Judaism is a collective outlook and religion and it reflects my politics. I’ve talked about Tikkun Olam on this list before and to me Tikkun Olam is incompatible with the worldview you prescribe to.

      • Avatar roger in reply to roger says:

        I fail to see the conflict. Does Tikkun Olam preach that personal responsibility is a vice? That pathological altruism is admirable? That when people disagree with creating a permanent welfare state that we can subtly dismiss them as racists? That we can make up numbers on education spending? That we can dismiss all measures of historic progress and spin it as ‘tribalism’?

        Most importantly, why does Tikkun Olam continue to neglect the plight of the ugly?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to roger says:

        And Yes I believe in the welfare state and think that the welfare state is a good way to eliminate poverty.

        We’ve been through this on multiple threads. I support public goods: Public Roads, Public Education, Public Transportation Public Health, and a strong social safety net. I think these things can help encourage people to take more risks economically and start their own businesses. Yes, I do feel envious of welfare states as they exist in Canada and much of Western Europe. I also support national vacation policies and the like. I am a fan on FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights:

        Sometimes I think libertarians and Republicans are astonished that people on the left can strongly believe in their own policies and viewpoints. We are not milquetoasts and punching bags. Nor do I think these things will create the Culture of Dependency that you described in the inspiring post.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:

        Sometimes I think libertarians and Republicans are astonished that people on the left can strongly believe in their own policies and viewpoints

        Of course. Just as liberals are astonished that libertarians and conservatives strongly believe in their positions, a phenomenon to be observed regularly at this very blog.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to roger says:

        I come from a Catholic tradition, and unsurprisingly, it contains plenty of overlap with the Jewish tradition.
        What I have noticed in working with people from other countries, is how little the individual is stressed, as a vehicle of wealth generation.

        I was talking to a guy from Qatar, who was proudly telling me how his government paid for all his schooling, and how his father held a good position within the state oil ministry and due to his father’s contacts, his family was purchasing him a house, a car, and a bride for when he returned home to his pre-arranged job.

        I felt embarrassed for him- in our culture this is the stuff of mockery, the nepotism, the gliding into pre-arranged life by family contacts without individual effort or initiative.

        Yet he was proud of it- and this mirrors many other people I work with from those countries. This is pretty well documented by Jonathan Haidt in his work, that the global norm is NOT “first the individual, then society”- instead the individual is subsumed within the network of family and clan.

        No, I don’t advocate returning to that model.

        But there is plenty to admire about it- the notion that an individual will, by superhuman effort or strange luck, somehow lift themselves out of poverty is absurd. Consider even the image of “bootstraps” How does that work, tugging at your bootstraps? Do you rise higher? If I wanted to craft an image of foolish futilty, I doubt I could create one better than “lift yourself by your own bootstraps”.

        There is such a thing as intentional community, where we extend the bonds of care and obligation to non-blood members, and create a mutual network of support and reciprocation to generate and sustain wealth.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to roger says:

        Of course. Just as liberals are astonished that libertarians and conservatives strongly believe in their positions

        Not at all, we’re just amazed that having done so you can stand to live with yourselves.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:

        And we’re astonished that you can manage to dress yourselves without help. Yawn. You grow increasingly less funny to me, Mike.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to roger says:


        Fair point.


        I think the similarities in Catholicism and Judaism come from the fact that they are religions that place an importance on actions while on Earth. There no concept of being saved by faith-alone as exists in Protestantism.

        Good points on how the western way is not the norm in other places. Though there is still plenty of nepotism in the US and it even though it is mocked, it is still very widespread. I know a lot of people who work for their parents. A lot of people were shocked when I said I would not be working for my dad after my law school graduation.

        Though it is hard to distinguish the family business from nepotism.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to roger says:

        And we’re astonished that you can manage to dress yourselves without help.

        It’s the Internet. Who says he’s dressed?

        But yeah, every once in a while I’ll read a particularly awful idea from a lefty and spend the next twenty minutes trying to reconcile it with the fact that he was able to express it in complete sentences.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to roger says:

        LWA. on the Qatarian you talked to. Tablet Magazine has a semi-review of a new book called the Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity by Samuel Tardros, who is a Egyptian Copt. The basic thesis of the book is that Arab liberalism is different than Western liberalism because the first Arab liberals came from civil servants associated with the state rather than bourgeoisie merchants and artisans seeking to limit the power of entrenched interest groups. As a result, Arab liberals have been more comfortable with the use of state power to get what they want than Western liberals.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:


        You mischaracterize the individualist model. Almost nobody believes you can get rich all on your own. It’s well-understood that it requires coordinated effort. But the key is that the individual has to take responsibility for themselves within that network. That unlike in the nepotistic system they have to make themselves worthy of their role; have to earn it and continue to earn it. Have to get to work on time, perform well, have to build the connections that strengthen their money-earning abilities, and have to provide for others’ wants and needs, because that’s all they’ll pay for.

        That’s all on the individual, his/her responsibility. But it doesn’t imply “going it alone,” or not needing to coordinate and work with others. That’s a bad misconception that leads to a sustained misreading of what we individualists are actually saying.

        As an example, I’ve often worked with people (in low level jobs), who said, “they don’t pay me enough to work hard.” Of course with that attitude, they’ll never persuade anyone to pay them enough to get them to work hard, because they’re not proving themselves worthy of drawing them deeper into the coordinated effort by promoting them. And a lot of that is about levels of interpersonal trust in a personal relationship.

        As another example, I have a friend who worked in the container shipping industry. Once he was telling me how fast the agreements had to be made and carried out. I asked if they actually had time to negotiate contracts, and he said no. I asked how they could ensure fulfilment, and he said, if someone screws you over you don’t work with them again, and you work with those who prove trustworthy. Again, it’s about coordinated efforts based on interpersonal trust in a personal relationship.

        That’s what the individualist model really is. Your critique is based on a strawman version of it.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:


        And to be scrupulously fair, there’s no doubt they have the same experience in response to our types.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to roger says:

        James, I agree with you but I think that the individualist model as understood in the West only arouse because the Western tradition placed more emphasis on the individual rather than the family or group for a long time. The primacy of the inidvidual in the West has roots in both the Greco-Roman philosophical and legal traditions and the Jewish-Christian religious ones.

        Even at its most communal, Western society has been more friendly towards the needs and wants of the individual than other societies.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:


        That’s well outside my knowledge base, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right. As a social scientist I hate cultural explanations because they’re inevitably so fuzzy and unquantifiable. But I don’t doubt even for an instant that culture explains a hell of a lot.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to roger says:

        @ James-
        OK, I need a snark break.
        ” I’ve often worked with people (in low level jobs), who said, “they don’t pay me enough to work hard.”

        Are you sure it was a low level job? That he wasn’t a Wall Street banker or corporate CEO or professional golfer, by chance?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to roger says:

        James, I recently read a book called The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lakov. Mr. Lakov was from the former Soviet Union and studied in North Korea as a young man in the 1980s. He pointed out that the USSR was dangerously individualistic and liberal from the point of view of the North Korean regime. The USSR allowed young people to study what they wanted and expected people to get their own jobs rather than applying for them. In North Korea, people were assigned their jobs and told what to study. The private plot given to people on collective farms was much larger in the USSR than it was in North Korea.

        And I think the above is true for all communist regimes in Europe and Cuba when compared to the East Asian communist countries. Western communists were unwilling and unable to totally disregard the needs and wants of the individual. Many of them saw communism as a way to fulfill individual needs and wants. East Asian communists were more willing and desirous to totally disregard the individual. I’d argue that this was becuase the West always saw the individual as the primary unit compared to other societies. The clan structure is basically unknwon in Western history. The familial unit of the West has always been the nuclear family of husband, wife, and their children.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to roger says:

        That’s interesting. I knew Asian communism was not exactly the same beast as Soviet communism, but I’d never heard that angle before. Seems plausible. And–to someone like me–scary as hell.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to roger says:

        After Stalin, the Western communists were not willing to go into sociological experiments in the same way that East Asian communists were. The ideological wackiness of the Khmer Rogue, North Korea’s juche philosophy, or Maoism scared the shit out of the USSR, Eastern European, and Cuban communists to.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to roger says:

        As a liberal, I think both roger and Newdealer are right. We can do better, but we’re doing pretty well.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to roger says:


        I wonder how much of what he saw as individualism in the Soviet Union and its sphere was a reaction to the post-revolutionary government under Stalin and an absolute refusal to go through that kind of upheaval again. It seems wrong to attribute the difference purely to differences in culture, since the Holodomor and the Great Leap Forward have much in common.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to roger says:

        Mike, thats true to an extent but you also have to look at the propaganda of the regime. Stalin’s propganda argued that collectivism is a way to fulfill individual desires and wants in a way that Mao’s did not. There is a Stalinist propaganda poster that is basically two images of a young man playing the violin. In one image, the young man is an impoverished street musician and the other he is in a tuxedo and playing in a luxurious concert hall. The caption read something about how talent is treated under communism and capitalism. The meaning was basically that under communism you will be allowed to achieve your individual talents to the fullest while under capitalism you will suffer. So even under Stalin, there was at least some concept of the individual that did not exist in the East Asian versions.

        The other thing is that the other communist countries in Europe never went into ideological wackiness the way that the Eastern European states did with the exception of Romania and maybe Albania. East Germany and Yugoslavia liked presenting themselves as the consumer-oriented Communist countries. Poland quickly gave up at the idea of trying to elimiminate religion because too many Polish peole insisted on going to church. Hungary allowed for more than a fair bit of private propety. The idea is that nearly none of them attempted the vast sociological experiments on the same level of the East Asian communists and respected the idea of the individual to a greater or lesser extent. When Eastern European countries attempted a more ideologically wacky form of communism, they tended to meet outright hostility and little corporation from the people because the people expected a certain amount of individualism. Romania’s population did not get terribly emotionally invested in the Romanian equivalent of juche and the Cultural Revolution.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      ND, tikkum olam doesn’t really mean what you think it means. In its strictest sense, tikkun olam is trying to find away around something in the Torah in order to prevent a socially undesirable outcome. The first tikkum olam dealt with the commandment that ordered debts to the poor be cancelled every Sabbitcal year, that is every seventh year. It sounds really just at first but during the time of Hillel it let to situation where the poor couldn’t get loans because everybody knew they could not pay them back in seven years and that they would be cancelled in a Sabbatical year. This is socially undesirable. Hillel came up with a legal way around this problem. This was the first instant of tikkun olam.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to NewDealer says:

      I subscribe to the Political Gabfest as well. I also read Radley Balko’s blog, so I’ve been aware of the asset forfeiture stuff for quite some time. I think that once you get to that sort of thing, it makes less sense to see it through the lens of poverty, and more to see it through the lens of civil rights. Frankly it horrifies me that the US court system tolerates what is clearly a massive violation of human rights. The 5th amendment is very clear about the government taking property arbitrarily, and recognition of the importance of being secure in your property dates back to the Magna Carta. This is one area where liberals and libertarians can agree that the government has too much power.

      Also, you have some support empirically for ethnic diversity affecting the level of the welfare state.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James K says:

        These are laws passed by the legislature and they starting to be challenged.

        The original intent was to go after drug kingpins and the like. Not small-time individuals.

        The main issue seems to be incentives. The system is abused when it pays for the salary and equipment of the DAs. In Maine or some other state, the money went into a general education fund for all public schools. This lead to civil forfeiture being used much less.

        It is also the nature of the US legal system. Courts are not allowed to give advisory opinions (IIRC this is done in other countries) and they are not allowed to hear a case without cause or controversy. This means you need to find a litigant willing to go the long haul. The cases in Texas settled and reforms were instituted without the need for a trial.

        A debate on whether the rules for US Courts are wicked, wise or both is another story.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James K says:

        Along these lines, I wholeheartedly recommend this video.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James K says:

        Of course by talking about measuring poverty, we avoid the really sticky question.

        Does poverty exist because we (general human we) want it to exist? Do we need poverty to exist?Report

  14. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    If there was a way to measure Poverty, we’d have to define it more clearly — poverty is a lack. Lack of money is a worthless approach: money can only buy things. In refugee work, we look to calorie count and nutrition. We look at disease incidents, especially cholera, kwash and marasmus. Want to take the Hobbesian approach and look at nastiness, brutishness and shortness of life? All measurable. Criminology and morbidity/mortality statistics cover these.

    Poverty, not so.

    There are no Necessities of Life beyond the maintenance and sustenance of life itself. Once we get beyond the simple stuff, the sorts of measures any feedlot would use for cattle or hog production, it’s all very squishy. All this hand waving about what the Left believes is so much making of straw men and is obtusely ridiculous. I will not be harangued on the subject of what the American Left believes. The American Left measures the height of a man from the ground up and likewise the entire American society — from the ground up. There will always be more poor men than rich: this does not disturb us in the slightest. If we care about the Squishy Stuff, we do not deny their squishiness. America is in very bad shape indeed, if what is measurable, see previous paragraph, is applied. Either we are the wickedest and sickest nation in the history of the world or we are imprisoning too many people and spending health care dollars stupidly. The American Left believes the latter and the American Right believes the former.

    The reason the USA is still in Iraq is not because it didn’t bother to specify its objectives in entering Iraq: it did specify those objectives and they were met. USA removed Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists from power. Saddam Hussein made a middle class nation out of a post-colonial wreck. Before the infamous embargoes, Saddam’s Iraq was the envy of his neighbours. So, too, was Iran under the Shah. The Bush43 administration did not understand Iraq well enough to realise they were opening a Pandora’s Box of religious civil war, though the Bush41 folks did. Bush41’s Secretary of State, James Baker savagely observed “People used to ask me why we didn’t go to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Funny thing, people don’t ask me that question any more.”

    To eliminate poverty in the world, that is to say the lack of this-‘n-that, we must first dispense with the politics. Human beings will sort themselves out quite nicely if the programme starts with the security required to get the shops and market stalls open again. Since the august name of Adam Smith has been invoked, here’s something else he wrote in Theory of Moral Sentiment: In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.Report

  15. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    There’s currently a measures used by the Human Development Index that does a passable job of defining poverty the way you want. It’s called the Multidimensional Poverty Index, and it’s calculated using household surveys because broad general income statistics aren’t sufficient, and income alone doesn’t do a good job of representing the lack of opportunity and choices that poverty creates. It’s used for measuring poverty in developing countries, though, not the US.

    It’s pretty complex, looking at 10 different indicators: nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling and proportion of children enrolled in school, and access to a toilet, water, electricity, a floor, cooking fuel, and other material assets. If a household lacks or is below a given standard on more than 1/3 of the things on this list, then they are defined as poor.

    Based on it, 33% of the people in the 109 developing countries that have data for the index are poor: a total of 1.7 billion people. This is higher than the estimate based on the <$1.25/day metric (which shows 1.3 billion poor people).

    The Human Poverty Index, which the UNDP has recently phased out as inferior to the Multidimensional Poverty Index, had a measure that was used specifically for developed countries. It used the probability of dying before age 60, the proportion of adults lacking functional literacy, the populations below the poverty line (50% of median adjusted disposable household income – which has the problems you noted) and the long-term unemployment rate, along with a complicated formula seen here:

    I think these indices have advantages over the one you suggest, because a short lifespan and lack of education (and thus lack of access to knowledge) are forms of deprivation that aren't represented by income. For the US, something like the MPI that utilized large-sample household surveys – possibly along with other data – would be better than your measure both due to including that, and because it could look at things like characteristics of housing (Is the neighbourhood safe [violent crime rate]? Presence of fridge, stove, computer [yes, in this day and age I'd consider a computer necessary – you can barely find a job or communicate with an employer without one], other needful appliances? Working utilities? You could also add in 'hours worked', which someone here has pointed out as something that needs to be considered.) This would be relevant cross-country, without needing to adjust for cost-of-living.

    The disadvantage of these kinds of metrics is that they usually involve complex formulae, and you have to decide on how to weigh different aspects which is inevitably rather arbitrary, but I still think they're likely the best measures we're going to find.Report