Friday, March 24, 2006

The Poor Have It So Good!

In today's Wall Street Journal, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute uses census data to make light of the plight of America's poor. They have it better than ever, he argues. Which would only make sense, since America's rich also have things better than ever. Besharov doesn't mention that.

He does, however, trot out one of my favorite arguments about how good the poor doing. 93% of them own color televisions!

Uh, what century is Besharov living in? Where do you even by a black and white set these days? I searched for them on Froogle and came up with a lot of 5 inch black and white televisions that are part of portable radios. They're cheap. The most expensive run about $50. But, search for the color televisions and you'll find they're cheap too. You can get a set for under $100. No doubt, the poor also have VCRs (available for under $40) or DVD players (available for under $75).

But, what of it? Mass produced technology products tend to fall in price over time. That's good for the poor. But if you're going to use that fact to make the argument that Besharav does, which is: "Millions of low-income Americans are living better lives that they did before. Period," then I think you should make that argument in cities and towns along the Gulf Coast, in person.


At 8:44 AM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Really good point.

It's so disingenuous to make arguments about who has it "better" based solely on who has which disposable consumer goods.

For me, the question isn't who has what shiny object manufactured in China. The question is who has the power. Those who have power have access to education, opportunity, and self-determination. Those who don't, don't. And in this country, one of the best indexes of power is wealth. Since the 1970s--and accelerating recently--the gap between rich and poor has been expanding (after decades of contracting). This is also slowly eroding the middle class; a few of those leaving the shrinking middle-class are joining the rich; the rest are sliding toward poverty.

If you don't like worrying about America, you can think about this in terms of China. The 800 million Chinese who don't live in big cities are lagging further and further behind their urban countrymen. Urbanites are benefiting from the economic boom; the peasants aren't. The peasants getting a bit of trickle-down benefit (I like to think of it as collateral benefit) in terms of material wealth, but for the past twenty-five years or so, government policies favoring the cities (including laws that make it difficult to move to the cities) have ensured that the peasantry has been getting proportionately poorer and more disempowered.

And if you don't mind worrying about America, I just learned about a new trend in prisons (in Oregon, I think). New mandatory minimum sentencing laws have made it harder to knock time off prisoners' sentences for good behavior. So the prisons are trying micro-rewards, for example, letting prisoners use their prison salaries to buy console games that mimic 1980s. Or color TVs. Now, it sounds like the program works--it gives the inmates something to work toward and thereby reduces violence and other prison nastiness. But it doesn't change the fact that the prisoners are PRISONERS. They are in jail, their wages are below poverty line, their prospects for joining the middle-class are lousy, and recent legislation makes it harder than ever for them to get out of jail. A color TV doesn't do much to fix that. And, as usual in this country, there's not that much difference between being in jail and being poor.

At 8:52 AM , Blogger Jon E. said...

In my comment above I should have said: The measure of a successful society isn't whether poor people have better stuff than they did a generation earlier. It's whether there is a lower percentage of poor people.


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