Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Thoughts on Poverty in America

tags: , , , , , politics,

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity, nothing exceeds the criticisms made of the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.

~ Herman Melville

How do you define poverty? Do you think it is the lack of nutritious food, clean clothing, reasonable housing and adequate health care? Even though your definition of what constitutes poverty probably hasn’t changed much during your lifetime, the basic financial resources necessary to keep you from being impoverished have changed dramatically during this period of time. Yet, did you know that the federal poverty level is determined on the basis of a 1955 government study that found that people spend one third of their after-tax income on food? Basically, in 1960, the government determined the federal poverty level by tripling the amount of money that people spent on food alone in 1955.

I probably shouldn’t have to point out that things have changed tremendously in 53 years, especially since most of us were born within the past fifty years. Currently, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that most Americans spend approximately one-eighth of their after-tax income on food. But even then, there are more “food insecure” people than ever before who need help getting enough to eat each month. For example, I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of working poor people, and from what I can see, most of them do not have access to adequate amounts of nutritious foods. Instead, they subsist mainly on cheap but calorie-dense foods and gigantic sodas sold by McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin’ Donuts — when they can afford to buy food at all.

There are two food banks in my neighborhood (which I also try to rely on), but those food banks are open during the wee hours one morning each week, unless it’s a holiday, when they are closed, of course. Even though they are supposed to be open for two hours per week, they run out of food within literally minutes and close their doors, which means that you need to be in line at least half an hour earlier if you want some food from them. Worse, the food they provide is uniformly starchy and minimally nutritious, and it is severely rationed so it is not enough to feed one person for one week, if you are lucky enough to get anything at all.

So just based on food purchases and the fact that even food costs are unevenly inflated throughout different regions of the country, the federal definition of poverty is absolutely ridiculous because the feds do not take into account the cost of anything else; rent, health care, medications, clothing, utilities, cleaning supplies, child care, transportation, and fuel for heat and cooking, just to name most of the necessities, most of which are increasing in cost far faster than food itself. For example, rent costs alone often consume as much as one-half to three-fourths of a person’s after-tax income, and sometimes more than that. Neither do they take into consideration the dramatic variations in the basic cost of living between, say, Manhattan, NY, versus Manhattan, Kansas.

So the feds identify a magical dividing line between poverty and not-poverty using an antiquated and “stupid-ified” measurement that ignores important regional inequities in inflation and costs. Further, they act on a one-definition-fits-all model that is blind to the tremendous differences that exist between the cost of living in one region of the country versus another, and further, they ignore the fact that some individuals have special needs (medications, for example) that can easily bankrupt anyone who is living at even 50 percent above the federal poverty level, for example.

Nevertheless, based on this ridiculous model, the current poverty threshold for a family of two adults and two children in the USA is $20,444, which is simply laughable for NYC and other medium to large cities: I dare any politician to work out a livable budget that would support a family of four on that paltry sum, especially since rent alone in NYC is 45 percent higher than the national average — which is close to or exceeds 20K for a family of four.

The sad fact is that, according to the current (antiquated) poverty statistics in use, NYCers are more likely to be impoverished than the national average (below);

In response to the dire needs of NYCers, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of NYC, is pushing to change the federal definition of poverty to one developed by NYC’s Center for Economic Opportunity that is modeled on a proposal by the National Academy of Sciences. Both models set the poverty threshold at roughly 80 percent of the median amount of what families spend on normal living expenses like food, shelter, utilities and clothing.

Additionally, this model is responsive to variations around the country: it factors in regional differences in the cost of living. For example, using that model, the poverty threshold for a family of four in NYC would increase to an annual income of $26,138 — which would place nearly one in four NYC households at or below the poverty level, an increase in NYC poverty of 19 percent.

Oh, yes, I said “income” deliberately because most poor people in NYC actually do work (below);

Speaking of employment, most people view a college education as a certain escape from a lifetime of poverty, but they should think again because it is not such a sure thing, especially in NYC. College students, most of whom qualify as impoverished while in school, nevertheless can look forward to an uncertain employment future, provided that they manage to graduate with a college degree. Despite having done “everything right,” these college grads can find themselves still facing years or even a lifetime of unemployment, underemployment and poverty, although now their penury is combined with a substantial educational debt (below);

So life is not fair, even for those who possess the prerequisite desire, intelligence, commitment, desire, good health (and good luck) and the ability to work hard to change their circumstances.

This proposed new model for defining poverty, which is endorsed by Mayor Bloomberg, would more accurately reflect the real number of people living in poverty because it would also include government benefits, such as food stamps and rent subsidies, as part of a family’s total income. One might predict that using this new standard would decrease the overall number of people living below the poverty level, but this isn’t the case. There would still be a larger number of residents living in poverty in NYC, although the face of poverty would change. Because there has been concerted federal and state investments into aiding impoverished children and teens, adopting this new standard would result a dramatic decrease in the number of impoverished children but the elderly who qualify as poor would be on the increase again.

Unfortunately, speaking of the elderly, developing a new standard for poverty should include pharmaceuticals in their overall cost of living — something that politicians and healthy people often overlook. Unfortunately, despite contributions from social security and medicare, 32 percent of NYC’s elderly find themselves impoverished due to the high cost of their medications.

Speaking of the costs of health care and pharmaceuticals, these costs affect a fair number of young people, too. For example, the new Medicaid law that was passed in 2006 stipulates that to qualify for Medicaid, an individual cannot earn more than $750 per month, and this includes those living in NYC. This conveniently ignores the fact that the vast majority of rent-stabilized studio and one-bedroom apartments in NYC cost more than $750 per month, so it is nearly impossible for a single person in NYC to qualify for Medicaid, unless they are unemployed and very likely homeless. Don’t believe me? Try being a young person battling with chronic mental or physical health problems while trying to stay employed and housed on a typical “good job” that does not provide adequate (or any) health insurance — it is just not possible. Nevermind that a fair number of these “good jobs” also require one or more college degrees.

Another problem that has not been addressed in the definition of poverty is child support. Oddly, child support payments are not a tax credit for low-income workers, whereas a person who is a single parent realizes an increase in income due to the earned income tax credit (in addition to child support). Fortunately, the EITC does reduce poverty for single parents, but it does nothing to address poverty issues among non-custodial parents who are also contributing financially to supporting their children.

In short, my argument is that the federal poverty threshold is insensitive to inflationary and cultural changes and thus, is worse than useless: it is cruel and harmful. The question I am addressing here is not who is to blame or whether everything can ever be fair for everyone because of course, life isn’t fair — instead, I am talking about our humanity as a nation. I agree with Michael Bloomberg that we must examine the inequities of opportunity and income along with the realities of living expenses and act in a compassionate and constructive way to address these inequities for the betterment of society as a whole. The way to do this is to create a new definition of poverty that is based upon a documentable regional reality, that helps vulnerable individuals and families, and all those who are employed but are still too poor to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Read More About This:

American Enterprise Institute (2005) Alternative Measures of Income Poverty and the Anti-Poverty Effects of Taxes and Transfers [free PDF].

National Academy of Sciences Measuring Poverty: New Approaches (C. Citro & R. Michaels eds, National Academy Press, 1995).

Alternative Poverty Estimates Based on National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Recommendations Using Revised Tax Model: 2001 and 2002 [PDF table].

NY Times.

Create your own income and poverty tables.

NYC poverty facts and tables (used above).

US Census Bureau Poverty Measurement Studies and Alternative Measures (a lot of useful studies and links here).

Comments

  1. #1 Bill the Cat
    July 14, 2008

    Fifty years ago, college graduates did not enter the workforce with crippling debt. Nowadays, lenders have all the warmth and heart of Junior Soprano.

  2. #2 Becca
    July 14, 2008

    The numbers of college grads who are below the poverty line is rather scary. It would seem like they should move to Manhattan, Kansas.

    I already knew how poverty was defined, and have always considered it bizarre… but it’s really worse than just a whacky government arbitrary cutoff; it is harmful to deny services to people who obviously need them.

    As far as Medicare- can’t we just put necessary medical expenses on a sliding scale?

    The way the EITC works for the non-custodial parent paying child support is especially outrageous. Seriously, wtf? Don’t we want to encourage paying child support? Is this based on some kind of Republitarded “let’s not encourage them not to stay unmarried” BS?

  3. #3 John
    July 14, 2008

    I think the federal poverty line should be pegged as a percentage of the local standard of living. There would still be problems with such a definition, but it would be more accurate than the current one.

    The exorbitant cost of health care and medication is probably the biggest difference between now and the 1950s, from a poor person’s perspective. Getting even a non-chronic illness can be crippling for someone on a low income.

  4. #4 HP
    July 15, 2008

    This is a thoughtful, informative post, and I really appreciate the whole thing.

    Which is why I’m rather embarrassed to admit that my biggest takeaway message is, “I loved ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and really enjoyed ‘I and My Chimney.’ Granted, Moby Dick and Omoo are intimidating, but why am I not reading more Herman Melville?”

  5. #5 Lillet
    July 15, 2008

    I had an emergency appendectomy in 2001 which resulted in a 6 day hospital stay. Uninsured.

    The total bill came to $21,000. I was told to apply for emergency Medicaid. I was denied, despite the fact that my income that year (struggling actress etc) was $19,000. Insanity. That really sucked for me but I was a 20-something single woman, what if I had had a family to support? I can’t imagine.

  6. #6 Ian
    July 15, 2008

    Poverty needs to be defined as a percentage of the inverse of comfort.

    It’s a crime as far as I’m concerned that we can blow hundreds of billions of dollars in killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, none of whom were going to come to the US and terrorize us, whereas you try to talk about making sure that everyone has a roof over their head, food in their belly, clothes on their back, an education in their brain, a useful contribution to society to make, and health care at their fingertips and people think there’s something wrong with your thinking?

    Great blog, BTW! This kind of thing doesn’t need to be said, it needs to be repeated ad nauseam until something is done about it.

  7. #7 Ford
    July 15, 2008

    What fraction of people with a college degree have actually gotten a college education?

  8. #8 kevin z
    July 15, 2008

    Excellent post Grrl!

    As someone with a family four subsisting off of a graduate student stipend and some state aid, I can relate. I had to take out almost 40k in student during my 4 year masters degree to support my family in addition to the pathetic excuse of a stipend (although I am very grateful for it of course!). Of course I didn’t have to have 2 kids in graduate school. If it wasn’t for state (PA) medical coverage, we couldn’t have done it. We were covered up till last April (~3 years in total), though I am still covered by the university, my family currently isn’t because I can only add relatives in Sept. of each year.

    Housing is ridiculously expensive for us and food just seems to cost more each year. And I live fairly rurally. We spent all winter with no heat, except for a wood-burning stove in the living room and a space heater in the kids room. In our house, it is oil heat and to fill our tank cost more than my monthly salary! So I got alot of exercise chopping wood.

    But I wonder why people, yourself included, insist on living in high cost areas if they are struggling. If the working poor are working general jobs, i.e. restaurant, hospitality, warehouse, retail, etc. they can do those jobs in areas cheaper to live at, right?

  9. #9 DeafScientist
    July 15, 2008

    You could try compare income vs. the cost of the selection of “essential” items as one way to measure poverty (e.g. a “standard” food shopping package, “typical” petrol costs, mortgage/rental costs, etc.). That’s not perfect either, but at least its indexed against the cost of the items/services in different locales.

    I’d reference a few articles I found except that they’re PDFs, not web pages. I imagine there is an entire literature out there exploring how to measure poverty in meaningful (and practical) ways. If only I had endless time to read these side topics… Mind you, I’d never get my paid work done and I’d end up poorer if I did!

  10. #10 Darwin's Minion
    July 16, 2008

    “But I wonder why people, yourself included, insist on living in high cost areas if they are struggling.”

    Because that is where their jobs are? Now, I’m from Germany, so YMMV, but over here, there’s two types of areas with low housing/rent costs: rural areas where there’s not much work to be found, or those parts of the big cities where it’s dangerous to go out after dark.
    Sure, you could commute to work, and a lot of people do just that. If (big if!) the can afford a car, which, with prices for gasoline going through the roof, is increasingly hard to do. Public transport ain’t as cheap as it used to be, either.

  11. #11 Azkyroth
    July 16, 2008

    Not to mention public transportation infrastructure, planning, and professionalism of the staff in many areas leave a lot to be desired. Like here in Sacramento, where the city transit employees who can parse “bus STOP” are few and far between.

  12. #12 William
    July 16, 2008

    Don’t forget that it can take a lot of money to move to a different area of the country. If you don’t know someone in the new area, you don’t really have a chance of arranging a “general job” in advance. So to move, said poor person would have to save enough to cover the cost of the move, and living expenses for an unknown amount of time. It is not surprising that poor people are not highly mobile.

  13. #13 Interrobang
    July 17, 2008

    But I wonder why people, yourself included, insist on living in high cost areas if they are struggling.

    1) High-cost areas are inevitably where most of the jobs are. Sure, there are people doing service jobs in lower-cost areas, but there are also a lot fewer jobs available. (Also, a lot of the lowest-cost areas have no nearby jobs. If you want to work, you have to commute. In those same areas, if you have to commute, you need a car.)

    2) Sink cost. Moving is incredibly expensive in terms of the amount of money you need to have up front in order to do it. In my jurisdiction, that amounts to two months’ rent in advance, moving expenses, and incidentals at minimum. If you need to look for a place in advance, add travel costs. Also, moving from a dense urban area to a more rural area would mean getting a car, which is a huge up-front expense, more than a lot of low-income people can afford.

    3) Risk. If someone told you you should spend 2+ months’ income to move to a completely new area and then there would be a significant chance you wouldn’t be able to find a new job once you’d already moved, would you do it?

  14. #14 BAllanJ
    July 17, 2008

    Small pet peeve of mine here….could you add “in the USA” to your title please? The net is largely but not totally American, and too many authors do this where it’s assumed that everything you’re talking about is American if not stated otherwise. There are other “governments”, even other federal ones. ScienceBlogs readership isn’t all American…. not sure about the bloggers themselves, they may be. But the topic, ie Science, surely isn’t… and poverty certainly isn’t.

    Sorry for the interruption….back to your discussion.

  15. #15 Tim Bartik
    July 17, 2008

    This post mixes in both accurate and inaccurate criticism of poverty measurement in the U.S.

    As for accurate criticism, it is true that there have been good studies by the NAS and others that have suggested significant improvements to poverty measurement. These improvements include moving the poverty line up to a somewhat more realistic level given contemporary living standards, and adjusting for regional variations in the cost of living.

    But the post is inaccurate in stating the following:
    “the federal definition of poverty is absolutely ridiculous because the feds do not take into account the cost of anything else; rent, health care, medications, clothing, utilities, cleaning supplies, child care, transportation, and fuel for heat and cooking, just to name most of the necessities, most of which are increasing in cost far faster than food itself.”

    Since 1969, the poverty thresholds for different sized families have been annually adjusted by increases in the overall Consumer Price Index, which does include “the cost of anything else”. The poverty thresholds were ORIGINALLY developed as ratios to the cost of buying food, but the thresholds aren’t annually adjusted on that basis, and haven’t been so for forty years.

  16. #16 "GrrlScientist"
    July 17, 2008

    ah, thanks for the correction, tim. after i wrote this, i thought the poverty threshold had to have been adjusted since 1960 since the annual income was something close to 20k in 1960, but i had gotten this information from a government official but obviously, i misunderstood what she said. so thanks for clarifying that.

  17. #17 Leni
    July 17, 2008

    Another reason why urban poor might not want to relocate to rural areas might be their race or ethnicity and a lack of community/family support. The thought occurred to me that it might make the move seem less attractive. Particularly for people with children, since would be further away from friends and family that assist with child care and other needs.

  18. #18 speedwell
    July 17, 2008

    There’s an economist fellow who writes on investments who, if I recall correctly, shows that the actual rise in consumer prices is much greater than the CPI. The CPI is a public marketing number that has changed its basis several times in the past year and can be shown conclusively to be “managed” by US government officials. In other words, what we have is a Soviet-style exercise in numbers propaganda designed to make us think we are better off than we are. I’ll look up a link.

    Also take into consideration the increasingly high rate of “grocery shrink”, where you pay the same price for smaller packaging, the increasing costs of everything due to energy costs and increased taxes on businesses (passed through to consumers), and, particularly egregious, the reports of high spoilage of milk, meat, and other perishables before their “sell-by” dates because of stores and delivery drivers too cheap to properly refrigerate the food. See this Consumerist blog thread for more information about that: http://consumerist.com/5026333/is-your-milk-going-sour-faster

  19. #19 Matt
    July 18, 2008

    What is the y-axis on your second chart (the blue bar graph)? Poverty, employment, unemployment? It looks like a very interesting trend, and I’m curious to see a trend of exactly what.

  20. #20 Libertarian Girl
    July 18, 2008

    “Fifty years ago, college graduates did not enter the workforce with crippling debt. Nowadays, lenders have all the warmth and heart of Junior Soprano.”

    What happened about 50 years ago to change all that? The government started getting into federal aid and grants for college, which inflated the price for everyone as colleges realized they now could get free money from the government in exchange for providing a resort-like camp/sports paradise/babysitting service for teenagers with school on the side. Professors’ pay (and grad students’ stipends, as another poster above pointed out) get raised last in this equation, and quality of education has certainly not gone up since even public schools started building $50 million buildings or $1 million fitness centers.

    You’re treating the federal government as if it’s the only thing available to these folks. The state of New York has some of the most generous welfare benefits available of any state. I know two people who don’t live in NYC and never have, but the state of New York thinks they do and provides them with excellent “free” medical care at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, from some of the best doctors in the country.

    Perhaps other such freeloaders are weighing down the system in regards to actual poor people who might need medical care, and perhaps the state of NY needs to tighten up its standards to require some form of proof other than just a simple letter with a signature as they do now– something saying that someone actually does live at an address, actually does not have a job (or has a low-paying job) and finally, is working to change that.

    Finally, one more thought on living in NYC on a budget, something I have also tried to do. NYC has some of the strictest rent control laws, if not the strictest, in the country. That keeps some people paying the same price forever, but for those just starting out or for those who have to move, their rents are immediately jacked up sky-high to start with because the owner knows they can never raise it and can not kick a renter out even if the renter never actually pays rent!

    Yes, that’s right. I know of some people who have not paid rent for years and openly admit they won’t pay at all any time soon, yet their landlords can’t get them out of their apartment. That raises the rent of everyone else who starts out renting from that landlord. It also means that if someone is really desperate in NYC, he/she can get away with not paying rent at all for a number of years, and they may never get kicked out even after that.

    All of that causes problems for the decent, hard-working person actually living in poverty and actually trying to honestly pay his/her bills.

  21. #21 "GrrlScientist"
    July 18, 2008

    wow, libertarian girl, your experience of NYC is so much different than mine and my neighbors’ experiences. perhaps you are a space alien from a parallel universe? to address a few things you mentioned;

    The government started getting into federal aid and grants for college, which inflated the price for everyone as colleges realized they now could get free money from the government in exchange for providing a resort-like camp/sports paradise/babysitting service for teenagers with school on the side. Professors’ pay (and grad students’ stipends, as another poster above pointed out) get raised last in this equation, and quality of education has certainly not gone up since even public schools started building $50 million buildings or $1 million fitness centers.

    i have no idea where you got your “facts” but as a former grad student, i can assure you that i lived below the poverty level during those years, and unlike your erroneous “babysitting” scenario, i WORKED for the university at that time, too. but i never felt “poor” because i was lucky enough to have health and dental insurance and access to affordable health/dental care. in fact, i was a grad student senator and i fought successfully for this benefit for all grad students, yeah me! i also had very cheap meds, and lived in low rent situations (roommates, rented a room in a house, etc.) and moved a LOT, and also relied on food banks. but i was still living under the poverty level.

    i am not sure where you are getting your information regarding universities, but the university that i went to relied on STATE tax dollars and PRIVATE monies to pay for its buildings — no federal money went into that fund, and these funds were kept separate. not sure what it is like for every state in the USA, but i can assure you that your building fund scenario is absolutely WRONG for at least one state in this country. better use specifics when you argue this point in the future if you want to have any chance of winning this point.

    Perhaps other such freeloaders are weighing down the system in regards to actual poor people who might need medical care, and perhaps the state of NY needs to tighten up its standards to require some form of proof other than just a simple letter with a signature as they do now– something saying that someone actually does live at an address, actually does not have a job (or has a low-paying job) and finally, is working to change that.

    some form of proof other than a letter for what? for medicaid? if that’s what you are claiming, then once again, your “facts” are seriously WRONG. medicaid is a federal program and i know that the amount of paperwork required to qualify for that is absolutely enormous and astonishingly intrusive (and humiliating). and then they reject you anyway. repeatedly. and then, two weeks before the end of the year, when medicaid coverage for that year ends, they decide that you qualify for medicaid, but that’s only after you’ve been battling lawsuits, collections agencies, have been unable to afford necessary medications, and other harassments, as well as having your credit rating utterly destroyed in the process.

    as far as columbia presbyterian providing low-cost or free medical care, i cannot attest to that since they are NOT a PUBLIC hospital, which are required to treat sick people regardless of their ability to pay for services rendered. columbia-presby (which has been known as NY-Presbyterian for at least the past four years, which you would know if your “facts” weren’t outdated, at best) can apparently do what they want, based on their own internal criteria, because they are not a PUBLIC hospital so they are not reimbursed by the state for treating indigent people.

    i also know from experience that they don’t treat poor people for free or for cheap because i have been fighting lawsuits from them for four years for medical bills. in fact, the only reason i ended up with medicaid was because they (somehow) worked the system to make the feds give it to me, even though i had to apply seven times for it in one year.

    NYC has some of the strictest rent control laws, if not the strictest, in the country. That keeps some people paying the same price forever, but for those just starting out or for those who have to move, their rents are immediately jacked up sky-high to start with because the owner knows they can never raise it and can not kick a renter out even if the renter never actually pays rent!

    who are your friends? they sound like a bunch of criminals. while it is true that NYC is very renter-friendly, i have known people who were evicted for nonpayment of rent (all of them were unable to pay rent due to huge medical bills or unemployment, curiously enough), while i have NEVER known or known of anyone living in NYC who has managed to do so rent-free, so i think this is a fantasy on your part. in fact, a landlord CAN (and WILL) evict people for nonpayment of rent, so a landlord who “cannot” do so is a complete moron since there is a very well-defined legal process and even has a generally accepted time-line.

    further, contrary to your assertions, rent-stabilized rents DO increase every year (i happen to live in one, so i am keenly aware of this), at a rate determined by the city, which is usually the annual increased cost of living. rent-stabilized apts only become available at “free market rents” after rent has reached 2k per month, unless the renter can prove they earn less than 150k per year. you make rent-stabilization sound like a communist plot when in fact, there are very few rent-stabilized apartments in NYC, and there are less every year, thanks to aggressive eviction policies that are being used by landlords. according to NYC’s 2008 housing dept stats, there are only 836,004 rent-stabilized apts and half as many rent-controlled apts, and the number is shrinking every year.

    i have no idea what rent-CONTROLLED apartments do with regards to rent increases, but i can assure you that there are very few units remaining on the controlled market (, as the people who live in those apts are generally old and when they die, their apts become available to the “free rent market”.

  22. #22 Tim Bartik
    July 18, 2008

    Speedwell’s comments above about the CPI probably refer to the Shadow Stats website. This was written up recently in a Harper’s article by Kevin Phillips.

    I think it safe to say that 99% of all economists do not think the arguments made by the Shadow Stats website owner, by Phillips, or by Speedwell, are correct. The CPI is not a perfect measure of increases in the cost of living. However, the CPI is most definitely NOT “a Soviet-style exercise in numbers propaganda designed to make us think we are better off than we are.” The economists at BLS are making reasonable efforts to try to have the CPI reflect the rise in the cost of living, and there are good reasons for most of the changes made over the years in how the CPI is calculated.

    Furthermore, the Shadow Stats website does not really “[show] that the actual rise in consumer prices is much greater than the CPI.” That is what is claimed by graphs, but as the website never explains how these statistics are calculated, the claims are not convincing.

    Actually, given the way that the CPI is now calculated, compared to the way it was once calculated, it is probably the case that reverting to older measures of calculation would lower measured inflation right now. The CPI used to heavily weight actual trends in owner occupied home prices, which it no longer does. As owner occupied home prices are plunging, older methods of measuring consumer prices would probably lower measured inflation.

  23. #23 AstroPaul
    July 18, 2008

    I have to agree with #20 — the federal government isn’t the only player on the field here. While there’s no need for the feds to do such a poor job of normalizing to local circumstances, it’s also possible that this problem would be better handled more locally, by states or even municipalities. After all, if New York City costs more in poverty benefits than it is worth in tax revenue, why should the rest of the country subsidize it?

    (I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case — big cities tend to be wealth-generating machines — but if their comparative advantage is so great, they should have no trouble paying for their own externalities.)

  24. #24 DHFabian
    July 19, 2008

    But to look at the economic silver lining — Our welfare “reform” and related policies, in conjunction with a damaged economy, has resulted in a rather startling decline in life expectancy of the US poor. Increases in infant mortality can reduce the poverty rate among America’s children while declining life expectancy reduces the number of elderly poor.

  25. #25 DHFabian
    July 19, 2008

    To libertarian girl:”…New York has some of the most generous welfare benefits.” What welfare, and for whom?
    Roughly how much do they receive?

    As of 1997, there is no entitlement to needs-based aid whatsoever. States accept some time-limited TANF workfare cases, temporarily subsidizing bottom wage/pt. time work with very meager allotments; combined earnings and aid are well below the poverty line, falling well short of anyone’s definition of “generous”. I understand there are some who claim that additional non-cash benefits ensures a comfortable lifestyle for the poor, without realizing that benefits are combined in such a way as to keep total income below the poverty line. For example, the amount of food stamps one can receive is determined by that person’s income from other sources, such as wages or Social Security. As your cash income increases, your food stamps decrease. As for the “free health care”, the number of doctors accepting people with Medicaid has nose-dived. Doctors aren’t required to take Medicaid cases, and reimbursement rates are so low that few will provide treatment (beyond required immunizations for children) to Medicaid people.

  26. #26 Libertarian Girl
    July 20, 2008

    “What welfare, and for whom?
    Roughly how much do they receive?”

    As I stated above, I know of two people who receive absolute tip-top medical care at the hands of New York taxpayers– who don’t even live in New York and never have. They sent in a paper saying they lived at a certain address, didn’t have a job, and couldn’t afford health care, and as a result when they get a cold they get the luxury of going to some of the top doctors in the country at Columbia Presbyterian without paying a dime.

    Another example I know of involves a man who lives in a rent-controlled NYC apartment, great location, whose family has owned the apartment for generations. The rent is controlled and thus only $250 a month for a 2-bedroom, spacious apartment in Manhattan– this is the bargain of a lifetime, seriously. Yet, he is an alcoholic who has never had a job and therefore doesn’t pay the rent, hasn’t for five years, and the landlord can’t evict him. He gets money to pay the rent from the state, and although the landlord can basically document that the money goes straight to the local liquor store and not to the landlord, the state keeps on paying this guy’s rent benefit along with other welfare benefits for being disabled– while he never goes for treatment and blows it all on alcohol, making his problem worse.

    That’s pretty generous from the state, a steady stream of alcohol income, an apartment you don’t pay for, and no demand that you seek treatment or get a job or generally shape up and improve your life. In this guy’s eyes, he couldn’t have it any better. He thinks it’s great, and it’s certainly not a system that encourages him to help himself.

    These are just a few cases I know of. Perhaps it’s not systemic or perhaps it’s more difficult for someone who actually has a job and is trying to further themselves to receive welfare benefits from the state of NY. In that case, it’s still messed up and needs to be reformed.

    But basically, I consider free medical care with some of the top doctors in the world, provided by a state you don’t even live in, to be a generous welfare benefit. I consider a steady stream of income for alcohol, free rent, and no strings attached to be a generous welfare benefit for an alcoholic. I’m basing my assessment on two other states in which I know of people receiving welfare (one very “blue,” one red). They ave to continually qualify on four or five separate counts for both Medicaid and welfare, keep up with a social worker, and provide all sorts of documentation all along. If they get a job, they lose the money.

    New York requires no documentation at all, just a letter saying you live there and have no job, no proof you’re looking for a job or actually paying your rent with the rent money they give you each month. That’s why I’m saying they’re generous compared to other states.

  27. #27 "GrrlScientist"
    July 20, 2008

    so .. according to your logic, everyone in NYC who is in need should be punished because you know two (or is it three?) people who are gaming the system.

    and gee, that’s a LOT of NYC welfare cheats and freeloaders for one person to know who claims not to live in NYC herself. i know something close to one hundred people in NYC who rely on some combination of unemployment benefits, disability, medicaid, welfare, food stamps and rent reimbursement (none of which seems to trickle down to me, by the way), and none of them — not one of them — are gaming the system. so since you claim to know cheaters then it is your responsibility to report these people instead of sitting back on your haunches and yelling about how poor people are worthless freeloaders. so get moving, instead of telling me about it, go out there and DO SOMETHING about it! i would absolutely turn in someone to the authorities who was cheating the system, even if it was my next-door neighbor, so why don’t you do the same? this is a criminal offense, afterall, or maybe you like hanging around with criminals? or are you are, oh i dunno, maybe stretching the truth a wee bit to fit your punitive agenda, or maybe you are just plain WRONG?

    further, columbia-presbyterian is not a public hospital, so i have no idea how any resident gets free medical care from them because that hospital doesn’t provide such (i have been fighting lawsuits from them for years regarding my own unpaid medical bills that will probably never be paid).

    and not only that, but where do these cheaters live? it is highly inconvenient to rely on a hospital that is not in your community for medical care, so let’s just say that I DON’T BELIEVE YOU unless you show some real proof.

  28. #28 Libertarian Girl
    July 23, 2008

    Wow, that’s pretty vitriolic to a new reader of your blog.

    I never said that poor people were “worthless freeloaders”; I don’t have a “punitive agenda”; in fact, I said that poor people are in a way being damaged by New York’s lax welfare laws that are giving so much money to people who don’t need it– that’s less money for people who actually need it. In the case of the alcoholic, those policies are encouraging him to make nothing of his life rather than seeking treatment and actually becoming able to accomplish something of value. It’s the opposite of what the laws in question are trying to accomplish.

    Secondly, I used to live in the area.

    Thirdly, because of that I know a lot of people there. I do not know anyone who is legitimately poor and helped by the system, although that does not mean that no one like that exists, of course. I just happen to know a lot of people who are gaming the system, which leads me to believe that many people are in general.

    Fourth, I know someone who has reported some of these particular people, and nothing has ever been done as far as I can tell. Lost in red tape in Albany, I guess. Overall, in a government the size of New York’s, I guess no one is going to care about a few people skimping several thousand dollars in taxpayer money for visits to the doctor or liquor store.

    Columbia-Presbyterian doesn’t provide “free” medical care, but it takes New York state Medicaid, which is what I’m referring to, with no co-pay.

    New York is not Alaska. It’s right next to New Jersey, which is where some of the people in question live. Any New Yorker should know that right off the bat. Just as New Jersey-ites often use NY or PA for lower car insurance, they can also use NY-provided health insurance just by sending in a paper saying they live at a certain address even if they don’t. New York is also very close to a number of other states within driving or train reach (PA, CT, even DE), so I’m not sure why you are trying to make this argument. It may be “highly inconvenient to rely on a hospital that is not in your community for medical care,” but it’s not really when you live right across the Hudson River, you’re not paying anything, and you’re going to one of the best hospitals in the world. What kind of (capital letter) proof am I supposed to show you? Medical statements borrowed from someone else and tax records showing they live in New Jersey? That’s an odd thing to say in the comments of someone’s blog, as if I would just go around making things up to try to prove some point which I’m not even making. I could make up much better anecdotes than the ones I put forward if I did choose to do so. I just happened to stop by your blog and make a comment, but you’re not as welcoming to open discussion as all other Science Bloggers that I’ve found. I guess we won’t be meeting up for drinks at the next Science Blogging Conference.

    You also seemed to miss one of my central points: I know genuinely disadvantaged and disabled people in other states (including Illinois, a VERY blue state) who have to qualify on 5 different points in order to receive Medicaid and state aid (for example, being widowed, disabled, out of a job, not owning property or assets, AND over a certain age– one person I know in IL has to qualify on all these 5 points or she’s out). Yet, in NY you don’t even have to live in the state, just say you do, and provide no proof of anything. You were saying that it was much harder for New Yorkers because they have to pay more in prices, but I provided evidence that it is easier for them to get aid than it would be if they lived in other states. They save time and money by not having to fill out the paperwork that some of the other people I know do– they also have to re-certify everything every few months and keep up with a case worker. There’s nothing like that in NY. While poor New Yorkers might be disadvantaged in straight-up cost of everything in NYC, they have the advantage of an easy-to-access welfare system that requires no documentation (as long as it doesn’t go bankrupt from the freeloaders).

  29. #29 "GrrlScientist"
    July 25, 2008

    okay, i’ll state the obvious: medicaid is a FEDERAL program, not a state or city program, which means that neither the state nor the city has any control over who qualifies and who does not. the FEDERAL government defines the requirements that people have to meet to qualify for medicaid, NOT the state.

    if you want to criticize the supposed generosity of NY or NYC or of columbia-presbyterian hospital, then at least make sure you are not basing your criticisms on the administration of a federal program which has nothing whatsoever to do with whom you are attacking.

    further, having been rejected nearly two dozen times within the past 16 months by medicaid, i can tell you that they require as much paperwork to simply apply (and then be rejected repeatedly) as is required for financial aid for higher education AND you have to reapply for medicaid every year. so i have no idea what you are talking about, but i sure wish i lived in your fantasy world, cuz then i would have medical care (and can get my recently broken shoulder fixed so i can use my arm again, i could get my broken front tooth fixed, i could receive medical care for my allergies and asthma — pre-existing conditions — without having to visit the ER when i am going into anaphylaxis and i could have my bipolar disorder treated — another pre-existing condition).

  30. #30 Libertarian Girl
    July 26, 2008

    What you say about Medicaid is not true. Medicare is a federal program; the federal government does provide a lot of dollars for state Medicaid programs, but the programs themselves are run and administered by the states. They all decide who qualifies and issue their own cards and how much state funding will go into it.

    Illinois has different guidelines than New York or North Carolina or any other state. The guidelines are all individual. New York’s are looser.

    Perhaps you’re being honest on your forms and therefore don’t qualify on that basis. People who want to cheat a system don’t care about that and just say what the officials want them to say. As I said, the people I’m aware of who game the system simply say they have no job, no chance of finding one and that they’re poor. It works for them even though they’re relatively young and able-bodied (and in the case of a few, don’t even live in NY!) and there’s no reason they shouldn’t legitimately be able to work the same as everyone else. I personally have not seen the forms to see what the state asks, but I know that they don’t verify anything on the form. It’s self-certified, just like the sub-prime mortgages :) and you know what some people will do when they have that opportunity and aren’t being closely watched.

  31. #31 Simon Halliday
    August 5, 2008

    As a student of development economics, and coming from South Africa, I find that your definition of “poverty” is problematic. What I would rather call it is something like “lack of subsistence” or something equivalent. The reason being that the experience of poverty (as you call it) in the US is dramatically unlike the experience of poverty in say South Africa, Guatemala, Indonesia, or India. Labeling these dramatically different experiences in the same manner confuses the issue in terms of international politics and economics. I admit this isn’t your ‘fault’, but it requires at least a brief consideration on essays covering poverty, especially, as a previous reader mentioned when the title is ‘poverty in America< ?i>‘ (rather than the US).

    I would recommend you take a look at a recent (2007, Journal of Economic Perspectives) paper by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT’s Abdul Jameel Latif Poverty Action Lab called ‘The Economic Lives of the Poor’, granted the paper has its own flaws but it might clarify why I took up this issue.

    Notwithstanding this, thanks for doing work to bring this topic into the spotlight.

  32. #32 Simon Halliday
    August 5, 2008

    For some reason my previous comment appeared abridged. I also mentioned that you should take a look at an (academic) paper by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2007) called, ‘The Economic Lives of the Poor’. It clarifies some of the issues above. I don’t know if the moderators thought that part of my comment was spam or something, it was just academic referencing.

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