Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More on Why Poor People are Poor

Everyone with a mind is piling on the new book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010. David Frum has already posted two parts of an ongoing and devastating review:
Murray is baffled that a collapse in the pay and conditions of work should have led to a decline in a workforce's commitment to the labor market.

His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be, and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees. In an interview with the New York Times, Murray is more specific—but no more precise—in his analysis:
The ’60s were a disaster in terms of social policy. The elites put in place a whole set of reforms which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing.
The '60s. Of course. But which reforms are the ones that Murray has in mind? He does not say, and I think I can understand why he does not say: because once you spell out the implied case here, it collapses of its own obvious ludicrousness.

Let me try my hand:

You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today's money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He's working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you'll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That's not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren't married, and you don't go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the "work" part left out is hard to fathom.
Brilliant. (Frances Fox Piven was a very liberal Columbia professor who supported a guaranteed income for all Americans and is the frequent subject of Glenn Beck's rants.) Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias tries a different approach, asking whether it matters if the poorest people are poor because of their own mistakes:
If you arrange your society such that 5% of the population is going to occupy some extremely unpleasant social roles, it may well be the case that the specific people who come to occupy those roles do so for specific behavioral reasons that are outside the scope of what we'd commonly call "bad luck." Had those people made different, better life choices they would not be the ones occupying the bottom rungs. But someone else would be. . . .  If you examine the suffering people and compare them to others who are doing better in life, you may say "well if only those losers had acted more like the winners they'd be better off." But this doesn't really speak to the justice of the underlying social arrangements. Someone or other is destined to be the "marginal worker" in any labor pool. If everyone had more human capital or a better work ethic then average living standards might be higher, but someone would still be victimized by a bad arrangement of social institutions.
I would add that the psychological impact of unfairness really matters. If poor people believe that some people get rich without working very hard, whereas all they can ever hope for is survival, no matter how hard they work, they will not work very hard. I think that one of the big reasons people are not as into work as they used to be is that the rewards of work, in terms of pay, respect, security, and so are not what they were in the 1950s. One of the things that Frum points out is that in their declining rates of marriage and workforce participation, today's poor are becoming like the poor of the nineteenth century, where a system stacked against the working man bred resentment, radical politics, and thousands of hobos.

It is not helpful to complain about the morals of poor people. There is nothing the government can do about that. But both marriage and workforce participation respond to economic conditions, and maybe the government can do something about the economy.

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