Tolerable Poverty

Poor ChildrenIn public discussion in the United States, quite arbitrary parameters are set for defining acceptable poverty, such as “minimum wage,” “living wage,” “poverty line,” “affordable housing.” None of these are set in the context of the actual need; all are set in the context of what the public is willing to pay–in transfer payments.  (Taxation.  Social economists deem “transfer payments”a less odious term.)   According to Families USA, the poverty-line  for a family of four in 2013 starts at $23, 550.  Actually, the Obama administration, in configuring tax relief,  sets the cut-off for re-evaluating family burdens for those earning less than $200,000!   That largess not withstanding, none of the many querulous figures are set in terms of the minimum cost of supporting persons who thrive. Market mechanisms, unaided,  indisputably do not set everyone safely into the middle class.

One of the rationales for not setting realistic guidelines (for thriving, not sour survival) is that everyone has different wants and needs–so how do we know what some norm costs?  More realistically, we are quite certain–likely justifiably–that taxing to find these funds would be astronomical, as Medicare, Health, Social Security and Unemployment are already 58% of federal obligations. Even the “cost of living index” is not a real cost of living guideline, but a selective “market basket” of goods that economists track to calculate annual inflationary trends. If we look at the minimum cost of thriving, even in the United States, where market engines produce so extraordinarily, at least as many as 40% of the population–perhaps even as many as 60%–either are not able to provide just their basic security needs, or–if we press the goals–have sufficient disposable income to “belong to the culture.”  To meet individual growth needs.  To meet children’s education needs, parents’ own retirement and health needs. Throughout their life spans.

man on street

In the mid-1990s, an attempt was made to define these standards from a modest lens.  Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta Project published income data for 500,000 at-risk families.  An independent analysis evaluated those figures to assess what it would cost to raise those incomes to a level that would satisfy very modest and lean, but safely middle-class life styles.  To meet costs for personal growth, health and retirement.   These seemed goals that were, on the face of it, simply healthy.  For a single person, an annual income of $35,000 was projected.  (Even by 2013, only $11,900 was allocated by the Feds for that person’s survival.)  But in 1995, we postulated, for a family of four, $50,000.  The figures for both the single person and family were already too self-consciously low to capture college educations, health care and retirement.  A perhaps more adequate guess is the 2010 figure for families of 4: those earning less than $88,000 a year were proposed (again by liberal politicians) to receive subsidies for healthcare insurance in the newly designed Healthcare reform!

But even the meager figures projected here from 1995 data will suffice to illustrate our concern.  Because the deficit between these Atlanta families’ existing incomes and the study’s projection of quite modest “need” (including extrapolations for many who were actually working, as the populations were represented in various sectors of the city) was $9.45 billion.  The needs-deficit for just one city.  In the fabulous mid-90s.  For just one portion of one city.  By 1998, 60% of the nation’s households were earning less than $56,020, so the income deficit–a diminishment in well-being, be not deceived–to meet the whole nation’s full income needs–not charity–actually requires being multiplied by some many hundreds of billions more than this simple calculation for Atlanta in 1995.                                                                                                     House of povertySo in America, Health and Welfare Agencies do not operate by the real guidelines.  We don’t even want to know.

Where, one has to ask, is the wisdom of markets here–that they do not generate the the required incomes?  That markets do not generate a fulsome mutuality?  Do we really believe the fault lies in the participants?  Sixty percent of the population not savvy enough to play the system well?

But while we’re talking about a savvy population, note that in terms of that wonderfully bracing notion of competition, somewhere on a measurable scale, there is a median I.Q.  That is to say, we can–and psychologists do–split the entire population quite in half–abstractly, looking at the numbers–to identify intelligence “metrics.”  Fifty percent test more intelligent, by whatever measures, than the other fifty percent.  So whatever notion we have–and drearily sell–about everyone working hard and everyone “making it” to the American Dream is dead in the water right from the get-go.  Competition is out the door.  Competition of labor is out the door, for not everyone is competitive.

Why is that so hard to get?

The question of a tolerable acceptance of income deficiencies has never been put to either Congressional leadership or public opinion.  Clearly politicians representing business interests complain quadrennially about the costs of social spending–even though those taxes relieve only the most stringent poverties–(the necessity of thriving not being clarified.)

One can say categorically such a mismatch of means and healthy goals most certainly will generate perennial hostilities on either side of the Transfer Payments divide, because those who have worked so hard to accumulate their wealth were never told, in that sketch of the American Dream, that they would have to pay these transfers.  Nor lord, lordy, neither does anyone want such government spending creating staggeringly burdensome debt and its interest.  What a pall that is on the national economy.  The international economy!  Especially debt held by potentially hostile nations, what say.

On the other hand, populist politicians cannot help decry how the freedom within markets generates marked social problems.  They notice this.  Much of Congressional business could be entirely set aside if this one issue (tolerable poverty) were resolved.  But other related issues could also be swept aside, if Thriving rather than just meager survival were set as the standard and commitment.  That is to say, if markets themselves really did set us all to thriving.

The issues of healthcare, education, and retirement funding would be seen as” how we are going to do it?–not whether we will do it.  But global warming and energy management–which threaten more devastating costs–and abortion and stem-cell research–which mix moral presentiments with dollars and cents– would also fare better in discussions of Thriving.  For these costs would come in addition to those of supporting well-being–all, altogether presently beyond market management.  Examining market mechanisms–(for reality testing of basic functionality)–becomes entirely germane.

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2 thoughts on “Tolerable Poverty

  1. Thanks for your interest, Anne!

    Actually, it isn’t money that’s the real issue. What gums up the works is trying to make “competition” the framework for individual initiative. Market systems make different opportunities for different talents. Having a “medium” of exchange makes it possible to manipulate rewards. Markets also allow unacknowledged disaster for less nimble people, when “creative destruction” has its day. Removing money is simply a handle one can take hold of–at least in fantasy here–to offer vastly more inclusive opportunities, and significantly different norms, different expectations.

  2. You give people lots to think about. And it’s obvious you’ve done a ton of homework.
    I’m still unconvinced money itself is the major issue, but certainly agree that equity, empathy, the notion of a society of equal opportunities–these seem to have drowned in the rush to profit, the careless exploitation of all resources by those in power (whether those resources are animal, vegetable, or mineral!).
    What’s so terrifying is that here in America we’ve ceded power to the corporations who now have power over politicians, media, markets.
    Bravo for you–trying to project a better vision–perhaps your blog will help people think about some of these issues.

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