Thursday, December 12, 2019

Poverty in Modern Society: Who are the poor?

     Who are the poor?

     I am seeing a lot of supporters of Andrew Yang use the promise of eradicating poverty and "uplifting the poor" to argue in favor of his political program and his candidacy for President of the United States. Though many of these supporters were clearly taught the arguments in a troll farm somewhere, the arguments are so common as to require a response. So I'm going to provide one. First, though, I'm going to ask the question again. Who are the poor?

     Modern neoliberal economics does its best to throw sand in your eyes when you try to go looking for an answer. That's because modern neoliberal economics in in service to a political agenda rather than the economic facts of our society, but that's a topic for another blog. Still, any discussion of poverty must start with how hard it has become to define the poor. The United States government does provide a definition, but I find it lacking.

     In 2018 the poverty line was drawn at $12,784 for a single adult. It was $16,247 for two adults sharing expenses. If the Andrew Yang campaign or individual Yang supporters are using 2018 poverty stats then they appear to prove their point: two roommates or a cohabitating couple will never be "poor" again if we judge poverty by the Federal government's stats. Every pair of roommates or cohabitating couple in the US will make $24,000 a year even if with no other job or income! That's $8000 above the poverty line! This must be the #MATH they are always talking about, right?

     All of this gives me an idea for a piece on how economic need traps people in dangerous situations. I'm going to risk sidetracking myself to say that the number one reason victims of domestic violence stay in an abusive situation is money and fear of poverty. Yang's Freedom Dividend requires two incomes to uplift the poor from poverty as defined by the federal government. One Freedom Dividend isn't enough for one person, it takes at least two.

     Let's ignore the federal government's official definition of poverty now. Throw it right out the window and forget it. Why? It's simply inaccurate. The whole US Poverty Index is wrong. It wasn't worth the paper it was printed on in the analog world of its birth. It's never been accurate because it doesn't reflect the real cost of housing in the US. Nor does it properly rate the importance of housing costs in American life. Instead it is based on the dollar value of a 1950s "economy food plan" multiplied by three. This has been increased over the years but, to quote the linked source,

"The plan was meant for “temporary or emergency use when funds are low” and assumed “that the housewife will be a careful shopper, a skillful cook, and a good manager who will prepare all the family’s meals at home.” The decision to multiply the cost of the economy food plan by three was based on a 1955 food consumption survey showing that families spent about one-third of their income on food at that time. Since then, the measure has stayed the same, adjusted only for inflation."

     Two things jump out at me when I read this.

     1. They really flaunted their open sexism without any bloody shame in 1955, didn't they?
     2. None of this bullshit says anything about rent, does it?

     In addition to the sexist assumption that the housewife would be able to masterfully juggle the household budget to the stringent demands of government tax accountants, the federal government's definition of poverty doesn't take rent into account. Home ownership rates rose from 1950 to 2000 and have gone down again since but the people who can't afford to own homes pay rent, unless they're homeless. Let's look at CA: in 1950 the home ownership rate was 54.3%. By 2000 it had risen to 56.9%. What was it in the first quarter of 2018? 55.1 %. Most of a 50 year increase was wiped out between 2000 and 2018. So since 1955, just under half of CA's population has been paying rent or homeless. Can we safely assume that renters and the homeless, on average, are poorer than homeowners who have paid off their homes?

     My biggest expense every month is rent and the poverty index doesn't count it. It never has. A 54.3% home ownership rate in 1950 means that the numbers were wrong from the very beginning in the states with the most renters (I'm looking at you New York, California, District of Columbia Illinois, and Florida) per capita. I want to add, at this point, that the federal poverty index is also racist because black people are less likely to own their homes than white people and therefore less likely to be properly counted as "poor" because of their rent. So an inaccurate definition of poverty has harmed a higher number of black people than white people because of the home ownership differences. Contrary to the myth of the welfare queen, it is harder for a black renter to be classified as poor than a white home owner. Think about that for a moment.

     So how should we decide who is poor?

     Fortunately, Karl Marx has a convenient definition!

     I'm not a Marxist, I'm an anarchosocialist/communalist. Yet I find that Marx's class structure serves as a good starting point for my own. The important classes, to Marx, are the capitalists and the working class. There are also the "dangerous class" of criminals, the homeless and the unemployed and the "little capitalists" of the so-called middle class. In my own work on the topic of managerial feudalism in modern America, I have translated this into landlords, bosses and employee/tenants.

     According to Marxist class theory, capitalists are rich and the working class are poor. Middle class small business owners might be rich or poor at various times and will often believe their interests are aligned with larger property owners. The dividing line between the capitalists, middle class and working class was property ownership. Capitalists derive their wealth from private property, the middle class attempts to subsist from private property and the working class typically has no private property. Simple.

     My system is also simple. Landlords derive their wealth from their private property. Bosses earn a greater share of the remaining wealth by managing private property for landlords. Employee/tenants both earn wages from the last remaining pot of wealth and pay rent to maintain the wealth of landlords. I imagine that's most of us reading this. If that's you, then welcome aboard. We're the poor. The landlords and bosses are rich.

     It's also important to recognize, by this definition, Andrew Yang's Freedom Dividend does nothing about poverty!

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