Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Somebody Is Lying Here - About Poverty and the Middle Class

Scene in Barbados - May, 1972, left: my aunt and cousin visit near a school where I taught in Peace Corps. Right: homes in the neighborhood I used to live. That was my encounter with poverty  - but chosen deliberately

It is a sad reflection that in a nation where competing interests are often engaged in memetic warfare, as well as PR battles, it is hard to tell the good guys from the bad. Well, check that....for those of us who've done independent research and are capable of critical thinking, it's not so hard. The recent Dept. of Energy report claiming there's no evidence that fracking contaminates water is a case in point. Look at who is doing the report, look at the extent of the government being co-opted by corporate-private agents, and the conclusion that this DOE malarkey is real emerges as bare bollocks (see also my skewering of it here: http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-doe-fracking-is-safe-for-water.html  )

Now it seems another battle over economic claims has emerged, from differing sources. At stake is the narrative for the next two elections, and whether the liberal side can even invoke the plundering of the middle class by the wealthiest, and the further degradation of the poor. If one side's researchers are correct, a particular duo from the (once liberal) Brooking Institution, then it's game over - basically for any Dem or near--liberal (not Neoliberal) running for office.

I became aware of this on reading the local rag's editorial ('Data Explodes Obama's Myth of a Disappearing Middle Class'), today and its  referencing a paper entitled:  "The exaggerated death of the middle class."   The authors,  Ron Haskins and Scott Winship, claimed that when the numbers are crunched with all of the relevant data included:

"the incomes of the bottom fifth of households actually increased by 26 percent, rather than declining by 33 percent. Those of the middle fifth increased by 37 percent, rather than by only 2 percent. There is no disappearing middle class in these data; nor can household income, even at the bottom, be characterized as stagnant, let alone declining. Even after 2000, estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show the bottom 60 percent of households got 10 percent richer by 2009, the most recent year available."

Hmmmmm......did these bozos run this claim past those now raiding dumpsters and lined up at food kitchens because their food stamps and unemployment benefits have been cut? Have they asked the kids in those families, the kids crying themselves to sleep each night because their stomachs won't stop growling, keeping them awake?  Have they asked all those downsized before they were eligible for their pensions and now having to live on a meager Social Security benefit because they had to take it at age 62? Have they asked all those who are living in states where NO part of Obama care will be available to them, so that they will be ineligible for even the most basic care....given their pre-existing conditions, and other issues? Have they asked all those (such as featured on the PBS documentary 'Two American Families') who had their health benefits cut or removed entirely?

Now, counter this "finding" with the one reported in yesterday's Denver Post ('4 in 5 Adults Confront Poverty in Their Lifetime', p. 14A) and it's quite obvious both claims can't be true. You simply cannot have - by all the principles of logic - 4 in 5 adults of all classes facing poverty at some point, and also no stagnant wages or growing at the rate that Haskins and Winship claim.

According to the Post article:

"Although ethnic and racial minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show.

Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76% of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge to be published next year in the Oxford University Press."

The Post article notes that "measured across all races" the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79% or nearly 4 in 5. Pardon me, but this indicates a nation of rising inequality and the degradation of most citizens in terms of their economic welfare. According to William Julius Wilson who specializes in race and poverty at Harvard University, quoted in the piece:

"It's time that America comes to understand that many of the nation's biggest disparities, from life expectancy to poverty are increasingly due to economic class position."

This is something that authors like Michael Parenti ('The Dirty Truth') have tried to educate us about for over 20 years. Parenti, for example, dug up arcane records - not easily available and not in the census - that disclosed that 96% of all wealth accruing to the silver spoons arrives via inheritance. That means these entitled spoiled types get a leg up on everyone else before the race even starts. Did the Brooking Bozos factor any of that into their computations?

The study reported by the Post (and to be published by Oxford Univ. Press) also notes that more than 19 million whites currently fall below the poverty line, which is still defined as $23,012 /yr. for a family of four. Of course, this is more than forty years old, takes no account of inflation, so that if the real poverty line was assigned, we'd likely see over 50 million fitting the category as opposed to only 19 million. Did the Brookings Bozos take that into account? Somehow, I doubt it!

The article goes on to note that while the census figures (and other gov't data) do give a snapshot of poverty, they don't capture the makeup of those who cycle in and out of poverty at different points I their lives - these might be the working poor (earning $7.25 at Mickey D's - not enough to live in a homeless shelter far less one's own apt.) or those white collared types downsized because of their age, and also cut off at the knees before they could collect pensions or health benefits.

If one only takes gov't census or other data into account he will find 12.6% of adults between 25 and 60 lived in poverty. But, when differential time data are integrated into the picture, taking into account intervals of being down and out, the figures increase to 4 in 10 (40%) and that is for living in poverty at least a year in their lives. The risks are particularly great for those between 35 and 55. For example, those between 35 and 45 had a 17 percent probability of encountering poverty in their lives.

The Oxford-published study predicts that by 2030, based on the current trend of widening income inequality, close to 85% of all working age adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of poverty.

According to Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who calculated the numbers:

"Poverty is no longer an issue of us versus them, it's an issue of 'us'. Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need."

Sadly, the new Haskins and Winship study would have us continue to regard poverty and middle class decline as only a fringe experience, thereby taking social insurance program revisions off the table. Were the authors aware of this? Maybe, maybe not. But they certainly didn't seem to be aware that their methods of measuring income left them open to charges of statistical hijinks and manipulation much like the recent DOE study of the effects of fracking on water - which selectively excluded those depths of the Marcellus Shale wherein frack poisons would most likely be found.

We need to be aware that merely becomes some study arrives out of some institution with a name that echoes some gravitas, it still may not be worth donkey lickspittle.

As for me, have I ever encountered poverty? Yes, for four years - but that was deliberately chosen when I signed up for Peace Corps, to be paid $125 a month. And yes, I'd do it again, just to see how the other half of the planet lives!

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