Poverty & Wealth

July 18, 2006

A Class of Would-Be Rulers

Something struck me oddly about Chuck Schumer's calling out of the "theocrats":

There is a group of people in America of deep faith. I respect that faith. I've been in enough inner city black churches, working-class Catholic parishes, rural Methodist houses of worship, small Jewish synagogues to understand that faith is a gift. The trouble with this group, which I call the theocrats, is they want their faith to dictate what the government does. That, in a word, Mr. President, is un-American. This exactly what the founding fathers put down their plows and took up muskets to fight.

The senator's use of adjectives for the present-day component of his rhetoric is conspicuous (probably without intent):

  • inner city black churches
  • working-class Catholic parishes
  • rural Methodist houses of worship
  • small Jewish synagogues

With the exception of "small" — perhaps because Schumer was straining to include some sort of non-Christian church on his list — all of the italicized words evoke images of non-wealth (which is not to say "poverty"). Is it really from this group of relatively powerless non-elites that the dreaded "theocrats" arise? There's a rhetorical disconnect, here, between warm tones with which politicians generally speak of the salt of the unwashed masses and the spiteful panic that such as Schumer instinctively muster when thinking about the democratic imposition of certain Christian priorities.

But that disconnect, telling as it may be, is not what struck me about the passage. Note Schumer's characterization of the founding fathers, who:

  • put down their plows and took up muskets to fight

Thus is the heroic working class of the past is invoked in opposition to the misguided working class of the present. Of course, we all know that Schumer's imagery is really just a jumbling of myths, but perhaps he gives away confirmation of what one suspects to be his opinion: The rubes of the past were once riled by their elites to drive off a distant monarchy. Those erstwhile elites set up the system that the Schumers now exploit to secure their own power. The fear is that the modern day rubes will be all riled up by a different set of elites to overthrow (or at least undermine) the current aristocracy.

One can only hope.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:40 PM | Comments (2)

September 5, 2004

Analysis in Two Dimensions

Because it seems typical of a certain mindset, a letter to the Providence Journal from Walter Bosse of Cumberland, Rhode Island, demands response:

We need to create jobs for the unemployed, but no more than that. The nationwide marketing plan discussed by Governor Carcieri for Quonset would create many more jobs than we have unemployed. The top jobs for new companies are filled by people who already work for the company and would be moved in. The remaining jobs might be filled by the unemployed. Where would the people come from to fill jobs above what are available here? They would have to move here, also.

Without guessing at Mr. Bosse's general political approach, one can say that his suggestion echoes the socialist's conceit that these things can be micromanaged. They can't be; moreover, in a state of stasis, problems are more difficult to handle, and economic mobility ceases to exist.

Let's think this through. Suppose Rhode Island companies need more workers than there are available in the state: what do they have to do? Well, they either have to lure workers away from other companies, or they have to attract workers from elsewhere, entailing either a move or a commute. In all cases, they have to make themselves more attractive to potential employees; pay and benefits increase across the board.

As for housing and population density, the value of housing will increase. In an environment primed for growth, that will require companies to make further efforts to attract and keep employees. Increased tax receipts from both companies and the wealthier citizenry can be directed toward improvement of public land and rethinking of convoluted transportation systems. And if the two sides of the issue come together such that companies can't afford the rate that the market demands they pay for workers, perhaps industries that pay less will have to move elsewhere or find ways to be more efficient.

I've simplified the picture, of course; it's probably beyond human ability to fully comprehend. But just as it is exponentially more difficult to move a car without allowing its own forward motion, so with the economy. Without a doubt, the various forces at play will require adept steering (i.e., management), but in a way that is probably related to the socialist's conceit, asking fellow citizens to accept the squalid stagnation of the status quo to maintain a preferred density is the liberal's selfishness.

If it happens that Rhode Island begins to change in character, then the "country feel" will become a premium for which citizens who can will have to pay, in some form, or to look elsewhere to find. And should they decide to do the latter, they'll get a much better price for their land, perhaps enabling an upgrade in lifestyle when they move somewhere that fewer people wish to be.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:21 PM

September 1, 2004

Housing Trends, the Confusion Continues

I don't doubt the laudable intentions and objectives of the Providence Journal's editorial board when it comes to the affordable housing issue. Still, being among the information elite in a region with a tendency toward liberal, even socialistic, solutions to every problem, their analysis has an understandable tilt. In yesterday's editorial on the matter, that tilt jostles the thinking, largely through a reliance on statistics disconnected with what they mean for actual people. Consider:

As elsewhere in the nation, New England's housing challenges cannot be met by state efforts alone. The Bush administration recently touted record home-ownership rates. But what it did not mention was that the hike was largely among the well-off, and mainly due to historically low interest rates. Home-ownership rates for low- and moderate-income working families with children have actually fallen since the 1970s, according to the Center for Housing Policy, from 62.5 percent to 56.6 percent. The rate has declined even for two-earner families.

Why a specific reason for record home-ownership rates is relevant, I don't know, so I'll leave that aside. On the claim about the hike's being among the "well-off," I not only can't find historical trend data for home-ownership by income, but I don't know what the editors consider "well-off" in these circumstances. The Center for Housing Policy's data (PDF) breaks down "working families with children" into five categories below 120% of the median income and lumps every income level above that into one. In 2001, which provided the Center's latest data, the median U.S. household income was $42,228, so 120% of that would be $50,000 — which probably isn't what most people think of as "well-off."

But what all of the above overlooks is something that nobody disputes: one way to increase home ownership is to increase income. A household earning below the median in the '70s that found more income and bought a house before 2001 would contribute to an increase in the higher bracket and a decrease in the lower one. Indeed, if that household had been a "working family with children" in the '70s, it probably would not be so now, dropping it entirely from the Center's data.

This hole in the statistics — that the categories capture demographics, not actual families — is probably very significant when observing the home-ownership of below-median working families. What the numbers show is a large drop between 1978 and 1991, with a gradual increase thereafter. What caused that? Reagan? I'd suggest that it could have had something to do with the Boomers' age range moving from 14–33 to 27–46. (Taking into account the median ages of women when they have each of their children (PDF), the average age at which Boomers became parents was 23, and the average parental age at which a Boomer's children were no longer children was 45.)

This discussion, as meaty as it may be, becomes less important when the Projo editors move on to a suggestion:

At the least, the federal government should be expanding its Section 8 voucher program, which helps low-income citizens cover rent. Instead, the White House has pulled back on the program.

Even pushing aside all argument about principles and the merits of forced self-reliance, one can suggest that the editors' suggestion will only exacerbate the specific disparity that they had just cited as evidence of a problem. If the government helps to cover rent, then taking on a mortgage will seem an increasingly distant objective and will represent a larger leap for comparable housing. In other words, if one believes in the significance of the Center for Housing Policy's claim that home-ownership, of itself, correlates with better behavior, better lives, among children (PDF), then an expanded Section 8 will only make matters worse.

As I suggested, the tripping obstacle appears to be the strong local inclination toward redistributionist policies, which bubbles through as the editorial ends:

With tax breaks benefiting the rich far more than aspiring moderate-income home owners, and with a still-mounting federal deficit bumping up interest rates, don't look for much relief on the affordable-housing front soon. The states will have to make do.

As one such aspirer, I can attest that the states, at least those that tax me, have plenty of room to "make do" in providing me with beneficial tax breaks. On principle, I'd prefer they do that than insist that the federal government add yet more income brackets to the "negative tax burden" side of the ledger.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:13 AM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2004

Poor as a Middle-Class European

Donald Sensing recently linked to a Bill Hobbs post quoting as follows from a Heritage Foundation report on poverty:

Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

And the report goes on to describe a level of poverty that isn't exactly characterized by a dearth of nutrition. There are, of course, families that need help, and we ought to jump at the chance to help them. However, it's worth remembering, when people (especially lawyers promoting their books) raise the specter of poverty as a political cudgel, that those who fall within the demographic range within our borders still have very much for which to be thankful.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:13 PM