Emmer column: Poverty ain’t what it used to be
A scruffy man rang the doorbell and asked for a meal. The man who answered the door prepared a heaping plate of food. The hungry man ate his meal sitting on the sidewalk, then thanked his benefactor and left.
It’s a custom in Chile to give a meal to anyone who asks. One. The hungry must visit another house to get another meal.
In Belize, a bright-eyed young woman had immigrated from poorer Guatemala next door. Magda described the life she left behind, “My family slept on the dirt floor of our house. We ate beans and tortillas every day. We could afford chicken once a year. Here, my husband and I have jobs. We have a bed with a mattress.”
Almost no one is immune to deep feelings of sympathy, of caring for the poor. These intense emotions fuel what is likely to be the most powerful political force of the last century.
A snapshot view of the world’s poverty shows 1 billion rich and 6 billion poor people. The movie view shows the poor getting rich very fast.
The financial success of China’s masses is astounding. Globally, the United Nations says people living above extreme poverty grew from 65 percent of the world’s people in 1990 to 89 percent in 2013. Abandoning communism and the contagiousness of rich-world prosperity are key factors.
Poverty in the rich world is not about food, shelter and clothing. It’s about education, marketable skills, substance abuse and the collapse of marriage.
It is also about immigration, although most immigrants’ poverty is temporary. They might leave a $10,000 a year income at home, quickly move into a $25,000 a year budget in the U.S., and ratchet up from there.
That immigrant family is rich compared with the peers they left behind, but poor relative to their new neighbors in the U.S. So which are they, rich or poor? The answer is both.
Defining who is poor is less about the person being evaluated and more about the evaluator’s income.
The original, official U.S. poverty line attempted to cut through that fuzziness. It defined poverty as an income below a basic food budget times three.
The Census Bureau estimates that as of 2016, 13.5 percent of the U.S. population lives below the official poverty line. Colorado stands at 11.5 percent.
In ski country, official poverty is lower. Garfield County poverty is estimated at 10.3 percent, Pitkin at 7 percent, Eagle at 7.6 percent, and Summit County registers 8.7 percent poverty.
The numbers are hogwash.
Christopher Jencks puts it more politely. He’s a sociologist at Harvard with unassailable liberal credentials, according to the New York Times.
Jencks says poverty calculations miss much income that people have. First, poverty estimates miss the value of health care, food and housing subsidies. Second, they miss the income retirees have from spending down their home equity and non-retirement investments.
Third, they miss the large, special tax refunds targeted at the working poor. Fourth, inflation is overstated, too. That exaggerates poverty.
Fifth, poverty numbers miss marriage factors. Two cohabitating individuals might be classified as poor individually, but a married couple earning the same money would not be.
The errors are due not to technical incompetence at Census, but due to political preferences inside government.
Jencks adds it all up and figures that poverty was not 14.5 percent of the population in 2013, but 4.8 percent.
That is profoundly better. It’s worth cheering about.
It also means that a widespread, basic understanding of our country is wildly wrong. What else of our vision of ourselves might be similarly wrong?
One political tribe may resist the implication that anti-poverty programs work. Another tribe may fear that there is now less pressure to do more about poverty.
All Americans can rest assured there is more work to be done, and that there are undoubtedly more efficient ways to do it.
Nonetheless, poor people at home and across the globe are rapidly climbing up the income ladder. As a taxpayer, consumer and investor — small or big — you are helping them mightily. Pat yourself on the back.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. Contact him at email@example.com
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