U.S. Welfare Statistics

Few things seem more misunderstood and misconceived in the U.S. than the welfare system, by which I mean public aid programs that include Medicaid, food stamps, special payments for pregnant women and young mothers, and federal and state housing benefits (even the term is used loosely enough to merit debates about semantics, with some using welfare to refer solely to one or some of these programs, and others going so far as to include public education and other goods to be a form of welfare — right now I am concerning myself with my aforementioned definition).

So with all that in mind, I figured that I would share some detailed and objective statistics regarding the welfare system: how many Americans are on it and for how long, the demographics of said recipients, the cost of the program, and so on. Sources include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, and the CATO Institute (a prominent libertarian think-tank).

In essence I have copy and pasted the data from Statistic Braina well-regarded and extensive source for those who love raw data; the original page can be found here.  Note that this report was updated July 8th of this year, so this is as relevant as it gets. As you look through the details, take into account the various myths regarding the sheer cost of the country’s welfare system, how many people are on it, the predominant racial demographic of recipients, and so on.

Welfare Statistics
Total number of Americans on welfare 12.8 million
Total number of Americans on food stamps 46.7 million
Total number of Americans on unemployment insurance 5.6 million
Percent of the US population on welfare 4.1 %
Total government spending on welfare annually (not including food stamps or unemployment) $131.9 billion
Welfare Demographics
Percent of recipients who are white 38.8 %
Percent of recipients who are black 39.8 %
Percent of recipients who are Hispanic 15.7 %
Percent of recipients who are Asian 2.4 %
Percent of recipients who are Other 3.3 %
Welfare Statistics
Total amount of money you can make monthly and still receive Welfare $1000
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than an $8 per hour job 39
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than a $12 per hour job 6
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than the average salary of a U.S. Teacher 8
Average Time on AFCD (Aid to Families with Dependent Children)
Time on AFDC Percent of Recipients
Less than 7 months 19%
7 to 12 months 15.2%
1 to 2 years 19.3%
2 to 5 years 26.9%
Over 5 years 19.6%
Top 10 Hourly Wage Equivalent Welfare States in U.S.
State Hourly Wage Equivalent
Hawaii $17.50
Alaska $15.48
Massachusetts $14.66
Connecticut $14.23
Washington, D.C. $13.99
New York $13.13
New Jersey $12.55
Rhode Island $12.55
California $11.59
Virginia $11.11

Mapping the Militarization of Law Enforcement Across the Country

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have brought to light not only the systemic racial disparities inherent in the U.S. law enforcement and justice systems, but the now decade-long trend of creeping militarization of police forces across the nation.

While the Defense Department program that allows state and local police to freely obtain some military-style equipment has been around since the early 1990s, it has largely been since the September 11 attacks that the practice has intensified (notably, this is despite the precipitous decline in violent crime that started before the trend picked up and that has continued concurrently to this day).

The New York Times has helpfully provided a series of maps showing which countries have received guns, grenade launchers, vehicles, night vision or body armor through the program since 2006. The following map highlights those counties that have received at least one category of these items:

screenshot-by-nimbus (33)

 

If you visit the original article, you can click on any country to see a breakdown of what they have acquired. Although the portion of their gear coming from the program is relatively small (most of it is paid for through department budgets and federal grants), this data details just how widespread this militarization has been.

As Alex Kane of Moyers & Company (among otherspoints out, this trend is concerning for many reasons: from risking the likelihood of death and serious injury, to alienating the public from the public servants that are supposed to be protecting them, this needless practice will have dire consequences in a society where public trust is political and legal institutions is already at an all-time low.

The Economic Sensibility of Housing the Homeless

It goes without saying that addressing the problem of homeless on all levels is a moral imperative. The ethical merit of keeping people off the streets, and helping uplift those already there, requires no argument (at least I should hope).

But unfortunately, in our world, morality is apparently not a good enough incentive. Even with all the capital that is available — whether it is wasted on the military industrial complex, sitting in offshore banks, or poured into pork-barrel projects — policies and solutions need to be cost-effective to gain any sort of political currency and public support.

Thankfully, there is a solution to alleviating homelessness that can bring together both moralists and cynics, providing the cost-efficiency that is so imperative to policymakers while legitimately helping those in need. 

Vox.com reported on a study by the Central Florida Commission that compared several approaches to addressing homeless in that region of the state (Florida has one of the highest rates of homeleness, not to mention poverty, in the country). 

[The study indicated] that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.”

Unsurprisingly, just dealing with the problem ad hoc or in a superficial sense is both costly and ineffective. But by contrast…

[Getting] each homeless person a house and a caseworker to supervise their needs would cost about $10,000 per person.

This particular study looked at the situations in Orange, Seminole, and Osceola Counties in Florida and of course conditions vary from place to place. But as Scott Keyes points out, there are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless.

The general line of thinking behind these programs is one of the happier legacies of the George W Bush administration. His homelessness czar Philip Mangano was a major proponent of a “housing first” approach to homelessness. And by and large it’s worked. Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of homelessness in America declined 17 percent. Figures released this month from the National Alliance to End Homeless showed another 3.7 percent decline. That’s a remarkable amount of progress to make during a period when the overall economic situation has been generally dire.

Here is a visual picture of the state of homelessness in the U.S.

Screen_shot_2014-05-30_at_9.26.15_am

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness / Vox.com.

Keep in mind that this statistical success has taken place during some of the toughest economic times in our country’s history (and Florida’s economy was especially hard hit). As the article notes, there is a good reason why housing the homeless is more tenable than many would think:

When it comes to the chronically homeless, you don’t need to fix everything to improve their lives. You don’t even really need new public money. What you need to do is target those resources at the core of the problem — a lack of housing — and deliver the housing, rather than spending twice as much on sporadic legal and medical interventions. And the striking thing is that despite the success of housing first initiatives, there are still lots of jurisdictions that haven’t yet switched to this approach. If Central Florida and other lagging regions get on board, we could take a big bite out of the remaining homelessness problem and free up lots of resources for other public services.

There you go: a win-win for everyone, especially (and most importantly) he hundreds of thousands of homeless people across the country whose plight needn’t be ignored for either ethical or practical reasons. 

Your thoughts?

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

If you look at the Pentagon’s official list of how many nuclear weapons accidents, serious accidents, we have — what they call “broken arrows” — the list contains 32 accidents. But I was able to obtain a document through the Freedom of Information Act that said just between the years 1950 and 1968, there were more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons. And many of the serious accidents I found don’t even appear on the Pentagon’s list. So I’m sure there were many more that I was unable to uncover that occurred.

The problem today is that we have very aging weapons systems — both in the United States and Russia. It’s very old technology. Our principle nuclear bomber, the B-52, hasn’t been built since John F. Kennedy was president. Our principle land-based missile, the Minuteman III, was put into the ground originally in 1970. [It] was supposed to be retired in the early 1980s, and the infrastructure is aging — the wiring, the computers in our Minuteman launch complexes use 9-inch floppy discs. There’s all kinds of potential for problems there — and in Russia, the same thing.

—  Eric Schlosser, in an interview with NPR about his new book on nuclear weapons.

Video — World Demographics

The following video chat from The Economist tackles a topic that’s been of great concern to the American public for some time: global population growth. In just a little over one minute, it shows that overpopulation isn’t as big an issue as popularly believed.

So overall, the world population is stabilizing, with many countries — including many in the developing world — experiencing negligible or even negative population growth. Most of the population increase stems from longer lifespans and the “demographic momentum” of younger generations coming into child-rearing age (at which point they will have increasingly fewer children, if any at all).

The following map confirms that most of the biggest population gains will be concentrated almost entirely in Sub-Saharan Africa:

Population growth by percentage increase. Source: Wikimedia / CIA World Factbook.

Of course, this doesn’t mean population growth won’t bring its problems, given that most of the growth is concentrated in nations that lack the resources, infrastructure, and institutions to optimally accommodate their ever-larger number of citizens.

However, as much of the rest of the world experiences a stagnating or declining labor force — not to mention the subsequent financial and economic burdens — nations with more youthful populations may gain a considerable advantage on the global market for human resources.

If poorer nations manage to tap into the potential talent of their young and vibrant people, investing in education and infrastructure to facilitate and promote opportunities, they may well reach unprecedented levels of prosperity and influence — provided they are not turned into giant factories for foreign companies first.

Fighting For a Four-Hour Workday

It used to be common sense that advances in technology would bring more leisure time. “If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful,” Benjamin Franklin assumed, “that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Science fiction has tended to consider a future with shorter hours to be all but an axiom. Edward Bellamy’s 1888 best seller Looking Backward describes a year 2000 in which people do their jobs for about four to eight hours, with less attractive tasks requiring less time. In the universe of Star Trek, work is done for personal development, not material necessity. In Wall-E, robots do everything, and humans have become inert blobs lying on levitating sofas.

During the heat of the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1930s, the Industrial Workers of the World were already making cartoon handbills for what they considered the next great horizon: a four-hour day, a four-day week, and a wage people can live on. “Why not?” the IWW propaganda asked.

It’s a good question. A four-hour workday with a livable wage could solve a lot of our most nagging problems. If everyone worked fewer hours, for instance, there would be more jobs for the unemployed to fill. The economy wouldn’t be able to produce quite as much, which means it wouldn’t be able to pollute as much, either; rich countries where people work fewer hours tend to have lower carbon footprints. Less work would leave plenty of time for family and for child care, ending the agony over “work-life balance.” Gone would be the plague of overwork, which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, has devoted his career to undoing the “nationwide amnesia” about what used to constitute the American dream of increasing leisure—the Puritans’ beloved Sabbath, the freedom to ramble that Walt Whitman called “higher progress,” the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Hunnicutt’s latest book, Free Time, traces how this dream went from being thought of as a technological inevitability, to becoming the chief demand in a century of labor struggles, to disappearing in the present dystopia where work threatens to invade every hour of our lives.

–  Nathan SchneiderWho Stole the Four-Hour Workday?

Of BRICS and MINT

In 2001, economist Jim O’Neill wrote a report for Goldman Sachs’  Global Economic Paper  series titled “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs”, where he identified four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — as potential powerhouses of the world economy (South Africa was added in 2010 after being invited to a summit of the original four countries).

These developing or newly industrialized nations were (and remain) distinguished by their large, often fast-growing economies and increasing influence on global affairs. As of 2014, the BRICS together comprise nearly 3 billion people (40 percent of the world population), a combined nominal GDP of $16.039 trillion (20 percent of world GDP), an estimate$4 trillion in combined foreign reserves, and 18 percent of the world economy.

By 2050, it is estimated that their economies will completely eclipse those of the G7, an association of the world’s current richest countries. Well aware of their rising status, the BRICS have been holding annual summits since 2009 (their sixth meeting just concluded in Brazil this past July) and they have invited other developing nations as an exercise of solidarity and influence. They have essentially become a household name among policymakers, political scientists, and economists across the world (not to mention investors and business people).

Now, the man that has brought us this catchy and game-changing acronym as a symbol of shifting global paradigms has presented four other contenders — the so-called “MINT” countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey (nearly all of which had been invited to previous BRICS summits).

As BBC News reported, these countries are not only as fast-growing and increasingly influential as the BRICS, but they each have a  healthier demographic outlook: whereas China and Russia in particular are projected to experience stagnation and even decline in their working-age populations, all MINT countries are beginning to enter a demographic “sweet-spot” where there are more working-age people than dependents (by they very young, as is the case in most developing countries, or very old, as is typical in most developed nations).

As the following chart shows, their projected growth rates will be no less impressive either:

Also note the location of the BRICS. The absence of South Africa has raised questions over its inclusion in the group.

Nigeria’s potential for growth is especially impressive: to jump from the 39th to 13th richest economy in less than four decades is, as far as I know, virtually unprecedented for such a large nation. Mexico and Indonesia close the gap by nearly half, and Turkey’s growth — although not as dramatic given that it already had a head start industrializing — nonetheless puts it near equal footing to established economies like Germany, France, and the U.K.

Moreover, these nations enjoy the fruits of geography:

Something else three of them share, which Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena pointed out to me, is that they all have geographical positions that should be an advantage as patterns of world trade change.

For example, Mexico is next door to the US, but also Latin America. Indonesia is in the heart of South-east Asia but also has deep connections with China.

And as we all know, Turkey is in both the West and East. Nigeria is not really similar in this regard for now, partly because of Africa’s lack of development, but it could be in the future if African countries stop fighting and trade with each other.

This might in fact be the basis for the Mint countries developing their own economic-political club just as the Bric countries did – one of the biggest surprises of the whole Bric thing for me. I can smell the possibility of a Mint club already.

If not a distinct MINT club, then certainly some sort of union of the two; this has already somewhat occurred with certain informal BRICS gatherings, which have involved few MINT members, in addition to other rising economies.

Of the four MINTs, only Turkey has a fairly diversified economy (hence, as mentioned earlier, its slower projected growth), while the remainder specialize primarily in commodities — namely agricultural products and/or natural resources — though efforts are underway to move into manufacturing and services (Mexico, for example, is already set to become one of the world’s top automobile producers).

For comparison, Brazil and Russia are the major commodity producers of the BRICS, while China, India, and South Africa have a broader economic base that includes greater developments in manufacturing and services.

What about wealth per individual citizen of these countries? Large and fast-growing economies are all well and good, but how does it break down?

Well, Mexico and Turkey are at about the same level in per capita earnings, with about $10,000 annually, while Indonesia — with a much larger population — has about $3,500 per person and Nigeria earns $1,500 per head (on a par with India). The head of the pack is Russia with $14,000 per head, Brazil with $11,300 and China with $6,000.

Here’s what in store for the MINTs if growth rates continue:


Granted, like the BRICS — and for that matter most rapidly-developing countries — inequality remains a persistent problem for each member, albeit to varying degrees: according to the 2014 Gini Index, India, Indonesia, and Turkey have fairly low rates of inequality (lower than even the United States), China and Russia are in the mid-range, while Mexico, Brazil, and especially South Africa are among the top brackets.As these countries become wealthier, there will no doubt be increasing pressure to see more of that wealth amount to something for the average person, whether through investment in public services or better-paying and more secure jobs. Already, nearly all the BRICS and MINT countries have seen some protests and civil unrest related wholly or in part to socioeconomic issues (by my recollection, Brazil and Turkey have seen the most pronounced demonstrations, though nearly all members have dealt with strikes).

As the BBC piece goes on to observe, the average person in these countries expresses a palpable sense of hope and optimism, even if there is much work to be done. Aside from inequality, corruption remains a huge issue in all these nations, as our infrastructural and institutional deficiencies (lack of good schooling, reliable roads and ports, etc). Things are largely in a flux, with lots of potential and forward-thinking, but plenty of causes for doubt and concern.

Whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that there will be interesting times ahead, both for these individual nations and the world at large. Few people in the West could ever imagine any of these countries being major actors on the world stage, given the decades of poverty and instability with which we associate them. It is strange to imagine that in my lifetime, countries like Mexico and Brazil — seen as dysfunctional and miserable places by the likes of most fellow Americans — may become economic and even political competitors.

Of course, I am getting ahead of myself. But as the developing world catches up to the more established industrialized nations (situated largely in the West), it is very likely that we will see a more multi-polar world, with global influence diffused across a larger number of actors. Such a paradigm is difficult for me to conceive given how long the international system has operated in a unipolar or bipolar fashion (the latter being the norm since World War II and the former for the last two-and-a-half decades). Will it be unstable? Will the world better address global challenges with more nations exercising influence? What of all the vast cultural and political differences between them? Won’t that get in the way?

Well, setting aside the political implications, I for one am encouraged to see half the world’s population potentially being lifted out of poverty (not to say that hundreds of millions won’t be left behind within their increasingly wealthy nations). Going back to the first chart I shared, it is worth pointing out that other populous countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the Philippines are also slated to be among the top twenty economies. Plenty of other nations will see relatively large growth even if they do not reach the cream of the crop.

But we must not be complacent. There is still much work to be done, on both individual national levels and globally. From climate change to worsening global inequality, profound existential challenges remain. But at least there is plenty of untapped potential that is starting to be released, and that will hopefully amount to greater prosperity for all — BRICS, MINT, and beyond.

Your thoughts?

My Ambivalence on Human Nature

It is astounding how just a cursory glance of the human condition at any given moment can simultaneously yield so much good and evil. Browsing through one day’s worth of news, I can find such a mixed bag of humanity’s best and worst tendencies. It puts my mood in such a flux.

I will read an article about an altruistic act, a peace accord, the lifting of millions from poverty, or some other event on either a micro or macro level that demonstrates moral and social progress. Then right after I see some stomach-churning demonstration of cruelty, whether it is a heinous crime, warfare, or the immiseration of millions by a seemingly impervious regime.

After so many weeks, months, and years of taking it all in, both academically and autodidactically, it is difficult for me to be consistently cynical or optimistic about the course of humanity. Perhaps this is to be expected, since our thoughts and worldviews are shaped by our experience and knowledge, both of which are continuously changing.

As it stands, I suppose I am currently cautiously optimistic, because we have nonetheless come a long way as a species, even if innumerable vices and problems remain. I see the potential for progress and prosperity, even amid so many reminders of our proneness to fallibility, apathy, and hatred.

I think it is worth acknowledging that suffering would remain even with the best intentions. There are still the vagaries of natural disasters, disease, and simple misfortune (accidents and what not). The impact of all these factors can and have been reigned in, but I feel it is only up to a point.

Sorry if my thoughts seem all over the place, this was sort of a stream of consciousness. It goes without saying that I am fortunate to have the luxury to pontificate on such things in so much comfort, largely by an accident of birth.

 

The Plight of Cacao Farmers

Note: Sorry if this piece is a bit disjointed. I had the ultimate nightmare scenario of my computer crashing before I could save it, so my write-up is lacking in the punch of the original. Ah well. 

As I’ve long observed, it seems that there is no commodity or service we enjoy that isn’t tinged with exploitation and inequality (often as far away and invisible from us as possible). Chocolate, like most exotic agricultural products, is of course no exception.

A viral video from Metropolis, a Dutch filmmaking collective, depicts this harsh reality in a bittersweet way, showing farmers from the Ivory Coast, a major supplier of cacao, trying the final product for the very first time (indeed, some of them had never even heard of it).

Though first uploaded on YouTube in February, the video only recently started making the roads online and through media. Even NPR picked up the story, offering a grim summary:

“Frankly, I do not know what one makes from cocoa beans,” farmer N’Da Alphonse tells Selay Marius Kouassi, a reporter for Metropolis, an international news website. He’s heard it’s turned into food, but he’s never tried it. That’s because chocolate isn’t easy to find in Ivory Coast, and when it is, it’s sold for around $2.70 — a third of what a farmer like Alphonse makes in a day.

But when Alphonse tries chocolate, he immediately gets why people the world over are buying it. “Ooh! It’s nice … and very sweet!” he exclaims. He and Kouassi speed off on a motorbike to share it with other cacao farmers and the young men who help him on his plantation. “This is why white people are so healthy,” Alphonse tells the other farmers as they pass a chocolate bar around a circle.

This testifies to the fundamental human disconnect that characterizes today’s global supply chain. Those at the bottom do not even know why or who they toil for; conversely, those at the top — not to mention consumers of the final product — typically have little knowledge or concern about how or where the products are sourced. It’s a fragmented and dehumanized process from start to finish.

The NPR piece also offers some perspective on cacao cultivation in the Ivory Coast.

More than a third of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast; it produces more than any other country in the world. But most of the farmers are small producers like Alphonse, cultivating less than 12 acres and struggling to survive. He’s supporting 15 family members on $9.40 a day.

Some of the Ivory Coast cacao workers are even children. As we reported in 2011, child labor is a persistent problem in the West African cocoa industry.

What’s also fascinating is that cacao clearly isn’t a traditional food in Ivory Coast — it’s a commodity crop. And it takes a lot of work to turn those bitter cacao beans into something as delicious as a chocolate bar.

The Mesoamericans first invented chocolate but consumed it as a drink. It took several centuries for humans to figure out how to ferment, roast and process the beans to turn them into cocoa. And eventually we figured out that adding sugar and cocoa butter was the winning combination for those melt-in-your-mouth bars that have ballooned into a $110 billion a year industry.

Many, many cacao farmers like Alphonse (and not just in West Africa) reap practically nothing from their participation in the cocoa supply chain while retailers and companies like Mars and Nestle are pulling in the billions selling chocolate bars.

Sadly, this is a very familiar, if not routine, story. From coffee to T-shirts to the most cutting-edge smartphones, almost every commodity comes at a great human toll. Companies reap billions while the integral contributors to their bottom line are scarcely acknowledged, much less given better working conditions and living wages.

As an informative slideshow from CNN reveals, the majority of cacao comes from poor or developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, where farmers earn no more than three percent of the final price — compared to 43 percent for retailers and supermarkets. Again, this is a very similar arrangement for numerous other goods.

It goes without saying that there is no justifying beggaring impoverished farmers while reaping in billions. While many entrepreneurs are thankfully aiming to be more socially responsible in their acquisition of cacao, their well-intentioned efforts are but a drop in the bucket for this massive industry. We would need nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way we conduct economic activity, especially with regards to foreign workers in poorer, far off nations. It should not be the norm for profitable companies to employ people too poor and disregarded to even know the fruits of their labor, much less be able to enjoy it.

 

Video — Superpower for Hire: Rise of the Private Military

Today’s post will be light but no less interesting. Vice Media, known for covering many interesting but neglected cultural and sociopolitical topics, has a short documentary on the controversial private military industry, which has risen in both influence and popularity across the world. Though its only 14-minutes long, it offers a pretty good look at this largely hidden world.

Given the rising number of low-intensity conflicts in many parts of the world, and the preference for dealing with through non-governmental means, this will certainly not be the last we hear of PMCs. What are your thoughts and reactions regarding this video?

Check out other Vice videos here.