Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sometimes we let averages and relative measures hide the absolute truth

From 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back by Trip Gabriel. An excellent article for reflecting upon the nature and dimensions of what we call poverty.

Simplistically we think of it as a condition characterized by not enough money to cover the basics. The reality is that that is only one aspect. Everyone has fluctuations in income, not everyone is in poverty. Another view of poverty is the absence of material goods. But in the US, the bottom income quintile has an asset ownership profile similar to the middle quintile of Europe which sort of makes that perspective hard to maintain.

Others view poverty via stereotypes, typically constructing an image of inner-city African-American poverty. But as the article documents, there are many faces (and many causes) of poverty.
Almost forgotten is how many ways poverty plays out in America, and how much long-term poverty is a rural problem.

Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America’s iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans.
And of course, localized poverty reflects nothing about individual poverty which occurs in communities across America.

We find it hard to talk about poverty because we have a hard time measuring it and agreeing on what we are measuring. There is the absolutist approach - determine how much money is required to maintain someone at or above some defined physical condition of well-being (health, education, shelter, etc.) and anyone below that is in poverty. Then there is the US approach which defines poverty in relationship to everyone else - X% of the some defined level of national income. Using that approach the poor will indeed always be with us because it is baked in the definition. There will always be a bottom quartile, quintile, decile.

We have a hard time distinguishing transactional, episodic, transient and persistent poverty. Transactional poverty arising from exogenous circumstances (hurricane, flood, fire, earthquake) which no one could anticipate receives the most sympathetic treatment. Episodic poverty, where a person has some contributory role in the outcome which could have been anticipated, receives less sympathetic treatment, even though the consequences can be devastating. Transitional poverty is almost off the radar screen and is only relevant in that many people captured in a poverty number are not really in poverty. If 15% are in poverty, probably a third of them are in poverty only on a transient basis. The child of middle class parents living at home or receiving supplemental help while interning for marginal wages, the grad student scraping by on stipends, the "starving artist" on their way to fame are all technically in poverty (certainly from an income basis) but are not who we would normally think of as in poverty. And finally, the real McCoy - poverty that persists over a lifetime and intergenerationally. That is usually what we most want to fix and are the least effective doing so.

I always hark back to productivity - the best way to reduce poverty, however defined, is to help people acquire the Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values and Behaviors that will allow them to achieve a desirable level of productivity. If you are not engaged in the market economy providing goods and services that others desire, you are likely to be and remain in poverty. But KESVB is a challenging package to cultivate.

Poverty is recognizable when we see it and the numbers can paint a picture.
Of West Virginia’s 55 counties, McDowell has the lowest median household income, $22,000; the worst childhood obesity rate; and the highest teenage birthrate.

It is also reeling from prescription drug abuse. The death rate from overdoses is more than eight times the national average. Of the 115 babies born in 2011 at Welch Community Hospital, over 40 had been exposed to drugs.

Largely as a consequence of the drug scourge, a problem widespread in rural America, the incarceration rate in West Virginia is one of the highest in the country.

“Whole families have been wiped out in this county: mother, father, children,” said Sheriff Martin B. West.

“These are good people, good families,” Sheriff West, an evangelical pastor, said of his lifelong neighbors. “But they get involved with drugs, and the next thing you know they’re getting arrested.”
This article is a reminder of the difficulty of balancing priorities. We can all sign on to the War on Poverty. But many people were initially skeptical or are now skeptical of the War on Drugs. And yet, as is obvious from the passage, Drugs and Poverty are deeply linked in ways we don't readily understand or in ways which don't lend themselves to easy solutions. It seems obvious that things would be dramatically better and poverty much lower if people would quit falling prey to drugs. But its not like we haven't tried to break that cycle. Yes, the relationship exists, but what can be done differently now to achieve better results than in the past?

And maybe we are losing perspective a bit. It is not only the measures we have to be careful of, it is also the context and perspective. The article is basically arguing that the War on Poverty has been lost in McDowell County (poverty rate declined from 50% in 1960 to a low of 24% in 1980 but has risen back to 34%. But
As coal mining jobs have declined over half a century, there has been a steady migration away from the mountains. McDowell County’s population is just 21,300, down from 100,000 in the 1950s. Those who stayed did not have the education or skills to leave, or remained fiercely attached to the hollows and homes their families had known for generations.
34% of those who remain are in poverty and that is not a good outcome but there is the matter of the seen and unseen. The article paints the picture that we have we lost the war on poverty but maybe we have almost won. Effectively, nearly 80,000 people have moved away from poverty in McDowell County to other locations (recognizing that to be a broad assumption and that not everyone who moves away also leaves poverty). Put differently, in 1960 there were 50,000 people in poverty in McDowell County and today there are 7,250. That is actually and clearly a huge improvement. Sometimes we let averages and relative measures hide the absolute truth.

But the lives of those 7,250 are still an affront to our notion of what life in America ought to be.

The article is also a useful reminder that much of the national discourse is too blinded by ready narratives of race and stereotype and class. But poverty is much more complex than we can imagine. The sociological collapse of families and the prevalence of drugs in this virtually entirely white community could be ripped from the headlines of any metropolitan newspaper documenting debilitating urban African-American poverty. Poverty is poverty wherever it occurs, to whomever it occurs and no matter what the antecedent causes - slavery, class, under-investment, economic restructuring, etc.

What I take away from the article is a raised belief that antecedents are interesting and marginally useful but probably not nearly as useful as many would have them to be. I think it also reinforces the critical importance of personal agency. If people are indulging in destructive personal behaviors, there is a limit to their capacity to escape poverty. Finally, I think it also reinforces the importance of grassroots efforts to tackle the root causes of poverty. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Disability, etc. can all help mitigate the consequences of poverty but they do little or nothing to prevent poverty.

And here the article is refreshing in its description of some of the local heroes trying to turn the tide.
Not everyone with an education and prospects has moved away. McDowell County has a small professional class of people fighting long odds to better a place they love. Florisha McGuire, who grew up in War, which calls itself West Virginia’s southernmost city, returned to become principal of Southside K-8 School.

For Ms. McGuire, 34, the turning point in the town’s recent history was the year she left for college, 1997, when many of the 17-year-olds who stayed behind graduated from beer and marijuana to prescription pill abuse.


Ms. McGuire, who grew up in poverty — her father did not work and died of lung cancer at 49; her mother had married at 16 — was the first in her family to attend college. On her first morning at Concord University in Athens, W.Va., about 50 miles from War, her roommate called her to breakfast. Ms. McGuire replied that she didn’t have the money. She hadn’t realized her scholarship included meals in a dining hall.

“I was as backward as these kids are,” she said in the office of her school, one of few modern buildings in town. “We’re isolated. Part of our culture here is we tend to stick with our own.” In her leaving for college, she said, “you’d think I’d committed a crime.”

As the mother of a 3-year-old girl, she frets that the closest ballet lesson or soccer team is nearly two hours away, over the state line in Bluefield, Va. But she is committed to living and working here. “As God calls preachers to preach, he calls teachers to certain jobs,” she said. “I really believe it is my mission to do this and give these kids a chance.”
God bless the Florisha McGuires of the world.

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