How exactly to define poverty is an ongoing conversation (earlier posts here and here) and here is another proposal that would include two additional dimensions:
If the point of measuring poverty is to capture well-being, we should reframe poverty as a form of social exclusion and deprivation. “Poverty has a wider meaning than lack of income. It’s not being able to participate in things we take for granted in terms of connection to society, but also crime, and life expectancy,” argues Rank. In an era when most deaths by guns are suicides, addiction rates are rising, and U.S. life expectancy is dropping and increasingly unequal by race and education level, capturing people’s well-being and designing solutions beyond material hardship is paramount.
Both of these dimensions have grounding in sociological discussions of poverty. The difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty covers similar ground to the idea of deprivation. There may be a minimum amount of resources someone needs to survive but this is different than comparing survival to normal or regular participation in a group or society. This is particularly compounded in today’s world where it is so easy for anyone – rich or poor – to at least how how others live (though this is certainly not a new issue).
Social exclusion can be very damaging as it limits opportunities for particular groups and often prevents the ability to help shape their own lives through political or collective action. This reminds me of William Julius Wilson’s work where economic troubles lead to the social exclusion of poor neighborhoods from broader society. Other researchers, such as Mario Small in Villa Victoria, have examined this idea more closely and found that some members of poorer neighborhoods are able to develop social networks outside their neighborhood of residence but these forays do not necessarily extend advantages to the whole community.
If researchers did decide that deprivation and social exclusion should be part of poverty measures, it would be interesting to see how the measures are standardized for social science and government data.
Here is a look at American social welfare policy throughout history and the argument is that there was no golden era of private charity:
One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.
This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world…
As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.
The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them…
That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.
In other words, the government has been involved with addressing social problems from the early days of America. Granted, it may not have looked like the centralized welfare state that is common in the industrialized world today but there was still some government involvement.
This also reminds me of a recommendation made by sociologist William Julius Wilson at the end of The Truly Disadvantaged. After looking at concentrated poverty, Wilson concludes with policy recommendations which includes the key proviso that American social welfare policy should try to raise everyone’s boat because targeted programs for specific groups tend to be seen unfavorably by the larger public. Think of Social Security, a program that benefits a majority of Americans and enjoys widespread support.
As part of a larger article looking at the legacy of William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged and his study of neighborhood effects, there is an interesting graphic: Wilson’s “web of influence.” Here who is on the list (listed here in clockwise order from the top):
-Robert Sampson – Harvard
-Sandra Smith – UC Berkeley
-Sudhir Venkatesh – Columbia
-Stefanie DeLuca – Johns Hopkins
-Christopher Jencks – Harvard
-Lawrence Katz – Harvard
-Patrick Sharkey – NYU
-Douglas Massey – Princeton
-Loic Wacquant – UC Berkeley
-Mary Patillo – Northwestern
This reminded me of NFL coaching trees: see the Bill Walsh, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Parcells trees here (and there could be other trees based on Paul Brown, Bill Belichick, and others). Why don’t we do more of this within the field of sociology? We know there are influential thinkers and graduate school mentors who influence broader ranges of students and academics than others. Indeed, quickly looking at this list shows these people tend to be clustered in higher ranking departments which attract more capable researchers as well as graduate students.
A classic example of this in sociology is the Chicago School: decades of American sociology were heavily influenced by a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s who trained a number of notable graduate students and helped shape the field (urban sociology in particular). Such social networks or trees or “bloodlines” don’t have to be deterministic; new scholars don’t just parrot what they heard before but there are key ideas and methodologies that these networks share while also analyzing new social realms.
There would be multiple ways to measure this. We could start with grad school training: who was trained at what institution and with which advisers and dissertation committee members. Another way to look at this would be to examine who is citing whom and who is utilizing theories and concepts developed by others. A third way could explore who is actually collaborating on works with each other. While all of this would take some time, I wonder if such trees would really help explain more of the underlying structure of sociology as a discipline in the United States.
William Julius Wilson offers some thoughts on what has changed since his book The Truly Disadvantaged was published in 1987:
It doesn’t do any good to offer some people a job if their values don’t lead them to take it. That concerns Wilson, too. At the conference, he and other policy experts explored the importance of “neighborhood effects” that can undermine values and incentives to, for example, pack up and move to where jobs might be more available.
Wilson credited welfare reform and the robust economy of the 1990s with reducing underclass poverty, but noted that poverty has rebounded since 2000. The dip in the 1990s might prove to be only a “blip” in the long-term decline of concentrated poverty communities, he said.
Black prison incarceration also has increased, putting even more of a chill on black incomes, family life and marriageable men.
“Quite frankly I think that (President Barack) Obama’s programs have prevented poverty, including concentrated poverty, from rapidly rising, considering the terrible economy,” Wilson said. He included Obama’s stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which earmarked $80 billion for low-income Americans. It included such emergency benefits as an extension of unemployment benefits, a temporary increase in the earned income tax credit and additional funds for food stamps. It also offered $4 billion in job-training and workforce enhancement programs and $2 billion for neighborhood stabilization efforts, Wilson noted.
Based on what Clarence Page reports here, perhaps not a whole lot has changed? It doesn’t seem that poverty or inner-city neighborhoods have really been a major priority of any major political candidate…
A new study suggests happiness is one of the primary benefits of poor families moving to better neighborhoods:
When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.
That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.
And using the gold standard of social surveys — the General Social Survey, in which researchers have questioned thousands of Americans of all income levels going back to the 1970s — researchers even quantified how much happier the families were. The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study…
“Mental health and subjective well-being are very important,” said William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at Harvard whose 1987 book “The Truly Disadvantaged” pioneered theory about concentrated poverty. “If you are not feeling well, it’s going to affect everything — your employment, relations with your family.”
This seems to fit with findings from other studies looking at programs like the Gautreaux Program in Chicago or the Moving to Opportunity program that took place in a few big cities. The children of these movers/participants may have better jobs, incomes, and educations down the road but there is not much of an immediate payoff in these areas.
It is too bad Wilson doesn’t go further with his comments. What exactly does better well-being translate into? Improved or more stable family life? Better social relations? Could improved well-being translate into better jobs and higher education down the road?
Sociologist William Julius Wilson recently made an argument for “affirmative opportunity” rather than affirmative action:
In a paper entitled “Race and affirming opportunity in the Barack Obama era,” Wilson urges a move away from controversial quotas in favor of a merit-based system that features flexible criteria of evaluation, which assess, in addition to exam results, personal attributes such as perseverance, motivation, interpersonal skills, reliability, creativity and leadership qualities. Wilson calls this approach ‘affirmative opportunity.’ He writes:
“These new flexible, merit-based criteria would less likely exclude people who have as much potential to succeed as those from more privileged backgrounds. I call this approach, ‘affirmative opportunity’ not ‘affirmative action’ to signal a shift in emphasis away from quotas and numerical guidelines, which is how affirmative action has come to be understood—and widely resented. Instead, the emphasis is on achieving equality of opportunity, a principle that most Americans still support.”
Wilson dismisses some recent calls for a move to a class-based, rather than a race-based system, arguing that class-based affirmative action would still favor whites, who are not “weighed down by the accumulation of disadvantages that stem from racial restrictions”…
Wilson ends his paper with a plea that no-one should be able to enter a hospital ward of newborn babies and accurately predict their future social and economic position in society solely on the basis of their race and class. “Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in the United States you can accurately make such predictions,” he says, before issuing a final call to President Obama to use the upcoming election debates to argue that ‘affirmative opportunity’ programs are the way forward in offering every American equality of life chances and putting an end to both economic and racial disadvantage for good.
It would be interesting to see some numbers in how this might play out compared to affirmative action. Couldn’t solely judging individuals open up room for more subjective judgments on factors like race and class?
Wilson’s ideas about the hospital ward sound similar to the pitch made in Waiting for Superman: do we really want children’s lives to be determined by a lottery? The documentary suggests this happens when kids are applying to better schools (only a small number are randomly selected) and Wilson suggests is taking place by which neighborhood a kid happens to be born in.
Wilson has long argued that systems to fight racism should help large numbers of Americans, not just specific groups as this breeds resentment.
New Census data shows that the population of the “poorest poor” in America has grown (about 20.5 million Americans), particularly in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty:
After declining during the 1990s economic boom, the proportion of poor people in large metropolitan areas who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods jumped from 11.2 percent in 2000 to 15.1 percent last year, according to a Brookings Institution analysis released Thursday. Such geographically concentrated poverty in the U.S. is now at the highest since 1990, following a decade of high unemployment and rising energy costs.
Extreme poverty today continues to be prevalent in the industrial Midwest, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Akron, Ohio, due to a renewed decline in manufacturing. But the biggest growth in high-poverty areas is occurring in newer Sun Belt metro areas such as Las Vegas, Riverside, Calif., and Cape Coral, Fla., after the plummeting housing market wiped out home values and dried up construction jobs.
As a whole, the number of poor in the suburbs who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods rose by 41 percent since 2000, more than double the growth of such city neighborhoods.
Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings, described a demographic shift in people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, which have less access to good schools, hospitals and government services. As concentrated poverty spreads to new areas, including suburbs, the residents are now more likely to be white, native-born and high school or college graduates — not the conventional image of high-school dropouts or single mothers in inner-city ghettos.
Two things to note: the percentage of people living in poverty concentrated areas is back at 1990 levels and these areas themselves have shifted to new places like the suburbs and the Sun Belt. Are we any better off in addressing this issue than we were when scholars called attention to this like William Julius Wilson in the 1980s and Paul Jargowsky in the 1990s?
It is interesting that there is very little in current political or cultural discourse about the “poorest poor” as most of the current talk centers on the middle class or perhaps the working class. Even Occupy Wall Street seems to be about the middle and working classes. Perhaps much of this group’s anger is driven by the middle-class who now feels the pinch of the economic crisis but the “poorest poor” have been dealing with similar and/or worse concerns for decades.