Food Stamps Are an Investment in the Future

That, in essence, is the finding of one of the largest studies of its kind on what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Since being nationally mandated in 1975, SNAP has remained the largest national anti-hunger program: last year along, more than 40 million poor working families, people with disabilities and seniors received assistance averaging to about $125 monthly; 70 percent live in households with children.

Whatever the moral case for supporting SNAP, there is certainly an economic one, as one of the largest studies of its kind recently proved.

From Bloomberg:

The economists focus on people born between 1956 and 1981, who were young children when the program was expanding, and who grew up in families with a parent with less than a high school education. They find that access to the program as a young child significantly improved economic outcomes and health status as an adult.

In particular, food stamp access as a child was associated with much lower risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult and, especially for women, higher levels of educational attainment and income along with lower participation on means-tested benefit programs. For example, food stamp access during childhood is linked to a 5 percentage point reduction in heart disease and an 18 percentage point increase in high school completion rates, compared to those who lacked access.

This evidence contradicts some critiques of food stamps, which misleadingly argue that it’s an inefficient and ineffective program.

The authors also highlight that access seems to matter most in utero and up until age 5. Gaining access to food stamps after age 5, by contrast, didn’t improve health outcomes as an adult, perhaps because the person had already been put on a particular health trajectory by that age.

As typical in such studies, there is a question of “correlation versus causation”, but the gradual rollout of SNAP allowed the researchers to account for this because “children living in otherwise similar families either did or didn’t receive benefits depending on whether their county voluntarily participated at the time. (The researchers show that county choice seems to be unrelated to other factors that may have substantially affected children living there.)”

The study also demonstrates the importance of taking a long-term view of these sorts of programs, especially when children are involved. Various other studies suggest that investing in the formative early years of one’s life pays huge dividends later; that is obviously lost on those who focus only during the year the benefit is received. 

Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in the United States

What immediately struck me about the 2018 U.N. Special Rapporteur’s report was its title, which framed extreme poverty as a human rights issue – a conceptual association most Americans would find unusual, if not absurd. The prevailing narrative in our hyper-individualistic society is that poverty is a matter of personal responsibility, cultural values, or even morality. Human rights, on the other hand, apply almost exclusively to the political and legal realms, concerning matters such as freedom of speech or a right to due process; socioeconomic conditions are a separate issue altogether.

This is evident in how news reports about “human rights abuses” abroad almost always pertain to government crackdowns on protesters, media censorship, extrajudicial killings, and the like; the scourge of curable communicable diseases, infant mortality, stunted life expectancy, and other markers of extreme poverty are never reported or framed in this way. In fact, rarely does one hear about these problems in the news at all, which perhaps has to do with this artificial distinction: “real” human rights issues are seen as more dynamic and adversarial—the protester lobbing Molotov cocktails at the militant police officers of an authoritarian regime—and thus are more attention grabbing and stimulating. By contrast, the child in a distant rural African village meeting a terrible end from curable diarrheal disease does not make for gripping news, even though hundreds of thousands of children die this way before the age of five every year. To many Americans, there is no engaging political narrative here—it is a horrible tragedy but not a human rights issue.[1]

Of course, none of this is to suggest that human rights are an either/or choice between the political and the socioeconomic. Rather, this report proves that we must broaden our conception of human rights to entail all issues that affect human dignity and flourishing, and which we all have a duty to uphold and promote. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council with the express purpose of evaluating whether the U.S. government’s approach to extreme poverty was “consistent with its human rights obligations.” While this may be stating the obvious, it is an easy statement to overlook, and I myself had taken it for granted without realizing how bold—and controversial—this conceptualization is to many Americans. Indeed, the report recognizes this problem and dedicates a whole section in the beginning to explain how and why extreme poverty is a human rights issue.

I also recognized the author of the report, Australian political scientist Philip Alston, who literally wrote the book on international human rights, titled International Human Rights in Context, Law, Politics, Morals. This massive and authoritative tome was the textbook for my International Human Rights class last spring, covering just about every aspect of the topic, from its philosophical and moral underpinnings, to its political and legal realities. Needless to say, I think it is a testament to the reformed Human Rights Council (whatever its continued flaws) that they appointed such an eminent expert on the subject to speak truth to power, as the U.S. is the most powerful—and increasingly anti-U.N. and anti-globalist—nation in the world.

Finally, I appreciated the way in which Alston opened the report by noting the sheer disparity between America’s wealth and resources, and the abysmal performance on metrics such as poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, and more. It was a damning exposure of how short America falls from its potential; ours is a nation with a trillion dollar company (Apple), most of the world’s billionaires (including the richest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with around $90 billion fortune), and a military budget larger than the next twelve to fifteen nations combined (including are top rivals) is somehow unable to provide affordable healthcare, sustainable employment, or even indoor plumbing. The report thus reminds us that there is no excuse for the persistence of extreme poverty: no nation is richer, more technologically advanced, and more well-resourced than the U.S., yet few are performing so poorly in proportion to their economic potential.

The Substance of the Report and Some Takeaways
As befitting an academic with Alston’s credentials, the report is dense with data, statistics, and narrative accounts that capture the sheer scale and complexity of the problem – all in under twenty digestible pages. Alston covers every conceivable socioeconomic problem in the U.S., from the racial and classist discrimination that negatively colors public perceptions of poverty, to the impact that extreme poverty—and the lack of action against it—has on mental and physical health, political participation, and environmental degradation. The report is informed not only by a bevy of government and academic data, but by visits to numerous neglected and blighted locations and direct meetings with government officials, civil society members, and the poor themselves (who all too often are the objects, rather than the subjects, of otherwise well-intentioned humanitarian concern).

Thus, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the veracity Alston’s findings, given that they combine both dispassionate, clinical analysis with direct, on-the-ground experience (approaches to knowledge stereotypically favored by liberals and conservatives, respectively). It is an important reminder of how important it is that we human rights defenders take a holistic view of the problem; it is not enough to commission surveys or crunch hard data. What must do these things and more, combining the cold hard facts that are crucial to informing our responses, with the compassion and testimony that helps spur us (and ideally our target audience) into action.

The report was clearly intended for a wide audience, given its easily navigable format, avoidance of legalese, and succinct length. Alston was thus wearing his advocate hat in place of his academic one, making sure that his findings could be absorbed by policymakers, legislature, human rights lawyers, and the average citizen. These observations, discussions, and policy prescriptions will do no good if they are kept within the same scholarly and legal communities but must be broadened to include all “stakeholders” (to whom Alston explicitly directed this report, in addition to government officials). This is a crucial lesson for those of us whose human rights work will, and should ideally, encompass broad swathes of humanity—maybe even all of humanity—most of whom do not have the unique educational background, vocabulary, or access to information that the average attorney, or even the average law student, has

This is not to suggest that we should patronize the subjects of the report, or other human rights victims and client, or make assumptions about their intelligence or resourcefulness. Rather, the idea is to avoid condescension, step down from the Ivory Tower of policy and philosophical debate, and engage directly with those we presume to represent and help, as Alston. That means knowing our audience and how to frame our narrative in a way that is relatable, easy to understand, and effective. This in turn requires adaptability and a willingness to change our approaches depending on whether we’re talking to victims of sexual trauma or abject poverty, government officials, or NGO partners.

True to the purpose of the report, Alston weaves a cohesive and comprehensive narrative that links all these seemingly disparate issues to one overarching theme: an unwillingness by the U.S. government to tackle the multifaceted causes of extreme poverty. Hence the proposed solutions are not simple and straightforward but reflect this complexity. It is not enough to simply slash taxes and regulations in the hope that businesses will suddenly invest their already ample capital into hiring more people—indeed, Alston stridently took to task the Trump tax cuts, among other supply-side policies.

Rather, the U.S. government must, inter alia, recognize extreme inequality as a problem that needs to be addressed; expand human rights to include access to healthcare; and cease demonizing the taxes that can provide well needed revenue for addressing extreme poverty and its attending maladies. What I found interesting about many of these recommendations was their emphasis on the cultural underpinnings of these problems: the fact that Americans (and by extension their government) do not see healthcare as a right like due process and freedom of speech is why solutions to healthcare are lacking. Similarly, the demonization of taxes and “big government” is why it is difficult for the government to even launch these projects in the first place. The report thus acknowledges that so many human rights problems require not only practical political solutions, but a reframing of our core values, perspectives, and attitudes. After all, it is difficult to solve extreme poverty when you regard it as an individual rather than a societal problem, or if you see it as a just outcome for laziness or irresponsibility rather than a product of misaligned incentives, misallocated resources, bad actors, and political neglect.

While I think this is the right approach, it also means that we have a long fight ahead of us. Attitudes and cultural values take time to change, sometimes generations or even millennia; witness the length of time it took for the subjugation of women or the practice of slavery—each considered an unquestionable given for the bulk of human history—to finally become socially unacceptable and soon after politically address—and still there is much work to be done in these areas. (Indeed, the very concept of human rights, let alone the term, came to recognizable form only two or three centuries ago, at the earliest.) Given our nation’s slowness to change (slavery took a war to end, the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago, etc.) I wonder how long it will be before the government, and we the people, take these recommendations to heart, much less follow through on solutions.

This is not to sound pessimistic or defeatist, but to caution that we may have to take the long view, manage expectations, and remember that the moral arc of progress often moves long distances—but move it does. Perhaps someday we will look back on how we treat poverty and lack of healthcare with the same astonishment and shame as we do slavery or the oppression of women (for the most part, anyway).

On the other hand, one could argue that this is a unique moment in U.S. history, a point wherein the collective conscience of the nation, if not the world, was shocked by the state of the current political climate. There is a saying that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, and while it is easy for those of us who are privileged to say, it is sadly true that it takes such events to rouse people from their apathy and force them to become more introspective. Thus, perhaps Alston’s report was well-timed, seeing as an increasingly number of Americans—especially the younger ones who will soon come of voting age and political office—are questioning many of the counterproductive cultural attitudes and ideas underpinning our sorry response to poverty.

My final comment on the report is that it should have focused more on the role of the private sector in perpetuating extreme poverty, or at least for failing to act against it. While it is true that the government is the final arbiter of conduct—through laws, regulation, and police power—in the U.S. especially, private companies wield tremendous power over policy, politics, and the national conversation. In theory, the government would not have to intervene to address extreme poverty if major employers such as Walmart and McDonald’s took it upon themselves to allocate their vast resources to employees. Jeff Bezos could spare a mere fraction of his $90 billion fortune to improve the lot of his workers and still keep costs down to consumers, while remaining fabulously wealthy. If landlords settled for less profit, perhaps rents would be more affordable; if property developers stopped building solely to appeal to luxury buyers, perhaps cheaper accommodations would be available. And so on and so forth. This power imbalance between the average American and economic elites, and the failure of the latter to use their power in more socially responsible ways, accounts for much of the extreme poverty highlighted in the report.

Thus I believe many of Alston’s recommendations apply as much to private sector actors as governmental ones, and I would add some of the following: more support for workers’ co-ops and unions, which level the economic playing field; promoting a business culture that is more socially responsible and considers the long-term implications ahead of short-term profits; changing the way we undervalue “unskilled” or non-managerial / administrative work (and those who perform them); land instilling a culture of volunteerism, charity, and community that would underpin more “pro-social” policies, politicians, and business practices. This is all easier said than done of course, but such is the nature of a problem as deep and intractable as extreme poverty.

The American Response to the Report
True to form, the U.S. reaction, as far as I could tell, was muted at best and indignant at worst. I found very little acknowledge of the report, let alone responses, outside of the usual progressive and humanitarian circles. The only substantive and critical reaction I could find was from none other than the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whose criticisms and counterarguments reflected many of the sentiments and assumptions I outlined earlier as typical of most Americans.

In an opinion piece published in the National Review, one of the nation’s leading conservative publications, Haley slammed the report as “patently ridiculous … misleading … unnecessary, politically biased, factually wrong, and a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”[2] (A view many conservative commentators affirmed.) She characterized the report as consisting of just “a single researcher” visiting a limited number of places for a limited amount of time. Alston’s recommendations were “farcical” and read like a “socialist manifesto.” She even threw in a line about the U.S. accounting for one-third of the U.N.’s budget, as if to suggest that the organization better not step out of line like this, or else. (Indeed, just weeks after the report was published, Haley would trumpet America’s departure from the Human Rights Council that commissioned it, ostensibly on the grounds that it is unduly biased against Israel.)

Haley’s response was long on indignation, but short on facts. She asserts that her home state of South Carolina, where she served as governor, brought a “record-breaking” number of new jobs, increased investment in education, and moved thousands “from welfare to work.” She makes the same claims of the Trump Administration she serves, which is very focused on extreme poverty and which has enacted economic policies that have “helped bring unemployment down to the lowest level in decades,” and has passed a tax reform law that will “direct billions in new capital into distressed communities in every state.” There are further assertions about median household income hitting “record highs,” wages rising faster under Trump for the low- and middle-class, and there being “more job openings than unemployed workers.”

Setting aside the fact that none of these claims are backed by figures, data, or citations—unlike the facts in the report that they purport to counter—they totally miss the forest for the trees. It is not enough for there to be more job openings than unemployed workers because, as Alston points out in a section aptly titled “An illusory emphasis on employment,” the quality of jobs being created is insufficient for sustaining long-term prosperity.

Similarly, even if we grant that median household income has reached a record high, that means little when adjusted for the increased cost of living—in particular education, shelter, and healthcare.[3] Moreover, if the U.S. government is investing so much attention and capital to its most blighted communities, why do so many communities continues lack clean drinking water—see the over-four-year saga of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis—proper sanitation, and basic infrastructure, as highlighted in great detail by the report?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is Haley’s “whataboutism” with respect to the report’s examination of the U.S.:

It is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to spend its scarce resources — more of which come from the United States than from any other country — studying poverty in the wealthiest country in the world, a country where the vast majority is not in poverty, and where public and private-sector social safety nets are firmly in place to help those who are.

Instead, the U.N. might have studied poverty in the Congo, where 60 percent of the entire population lacks the basics of food and electricity. Or Burundi, where the typical annual income is $280. Or Venezuela, where narco-state dictators have driven a once prosperous country into the ground with an inflation rate over 25,000 percent, and where diseases that were once thought eliminated are now reappearing.

When there are many dozens of countries where poverty consumes most of the population, and where corrupt governments deliberately make the problem much worse, why would the U.N. study poverty in America? The answer is politics.

It is here where Haley’s critique is at its most defensive. In essence, her sentiment is “How dare these globalists harshly criticize the greatest country in the world?” – something many increasingly-insular and nationalistic Americans would concur with. The temerity to subject the U.S. to the sort of scrutiny best reserved for inferior nations. The U.S. is above reproach, not only because it pays these U.N. bureaucrats’ bills, but because it is so much richer and better than so many other countries, and doesn’t have nearly as severe a level of poverty.

Well, that is in fact the point: It is because the U.S. is so wealthy that we should examine how such wealth and resources haven’t translated to broader prosperity for all. Congo, Burundi, and Venezuela do not claim the level of exceptionalism we do, nor do they have anywhere near the wealth, stability, institutional competency, and other instruments of prosperity that are plentiful in the U.S. yet underutilized or mismanaged. Plus, two wrongs do not make a right: that other countries have it worse does not somehow abrogate our responsibility to do better for our citizens, especially as the greatest country in the world.

Moreover, Alston’s report made a point of comparing the U.S. to countries with similar economic, political, and social profile; we perform poorly by developed world standards, not compared to the world’s poorest and most unstable states, which are on a totally different playing field. (Besides, as Ambassador to the U.N., she should know that U.N. Human Rights Council conducts reports of these kinds for nearly all the world’s countries—but then again, the U.S. did leave the body fairly soon after she was appointed, so perhaps she had not had the chance to learn this. Thus, there is no need to take the report so personally.)

In any event, it should not matter that the U.S. could be so much worse, or that its impoverished citizens fare comparatively better than those in failed states. What matters is that no one need be abjectly poor in the first place, especially in a country with so capital sloshing around in our government budget, corporate coffers, and financial system. What matters is that so many people suffer needlessly, not because we are mired in war, famine, societal collapse, or some other potentially excusable calamity, but because our economic and political paradigms fail to allocate resources properly, be it the government spending too much on the military, or companies diverting more funds to executives than to average workers.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts
I focus on Haley’s reaction not only because hers was the most prominent (she is after all our representative to the U.N.) but because it encapsulates precisely the attitude most Americans harbor, and which Alston’s report identified as part of what is holding us back as a society. The rest of the world should mind its own business. We’re the biggest game in town and shouldn’t be messed with. Unsurprisingly, this matches prevailing rhetoric of the U.S. abroad, where longtime allies are shunned and insulted, global institutions are undermined, and the very idea of an international system—much less international human rights—is disparaged as globalist encroachments on sovereignty.

One thing is for certain: now is an interesting time to be an international human rights advocate. For better and for worse, we are being challenged like never before. Though the negative consequences are obvious, the silver-lining is that such anti-humanist rhetoric, both at home and abroad, may be push that we and our potential allies (and even some ideological opponents) need to come together and act. Once enough Americans see firsthand how the U.N. report plays out versus the claims of this administration and its backers, maybe Alston’s recommendation will be taken to heart—one vote, legal case, or lobbying effort at a time.

To quote one accurate observation by Haley’s National Review piece, extreme poverty, like so many other human rights issues, is a “multidimensional” and complex problem; thus, it will require a multidimensional approach on the part of human rights lawyers and activists. We must combine different strategies, competencies, concentrations, and perspectives if we are going to tackle the myriad of cultural, political, and economic issues that make these problems so persistent. However, acrimonious, at least we are having a conservation from which to learn from and begin.

[1] Psychologist Paul Slovik coined the term “psychic numbing” to describe our inability to be moved by large scale tragedies, such as genocide, due in part to the “dry statistics” having less emotional impact that one recognizable or dynamic incident. “‘If I look at the mass I will never act’: Psychic numbing and genocide,” Decision Research and University of Oregon.

[2] Haley, Nikki, The United Nations’ Patently Ridiculous Report on American Poverty (July 9, 2018)

[3] Stagnating salaries: Real US wages are essentially back at 1974 levels, Pew reports, USA Today

Partners in Health

One of my all-time favorite charities is Partners in Health (PIH), which ranks as one of the most transparent and cost-effective charitable organizations in the world.

To highlight just one of many examples of its good work, it has been working for over a decade in the very poor African country of Lesotho, whose 2.1 million people endure some of the worst public health problems in the world. One out of four adults have HIV, the rate of tuberculosis—a nasty respiratory illness—is second only to South Africa, and the maternal mortality rate is at crisis levels. Consequently, the country has a life expectancy of just 54 years.

Since 2006, PIH has been working with Lesotho’s Ministry of Health to tackle these issues while strengthening the nation’s know-how and institutions. In 2014, the government launched its National Health Reform, relying on PIH to help implement a universal healthcare system. Seventy-two underfunded and understaffed health centers, which serve about 40 percent of the population, have been revamped with better staff and equipment. Each of the reformed districts now employs a primary health care coordinator, pharmacist, and data clerk; medicine distribution, record keeping, and communications between health facilities and with patients have improved markedly, leading to more effective health outcomes.

The results speak for themselves: from 2013 to 2017, the number of people tested for HIV has increased an incredible 432 percent, while the number of people treated for HIV has more than double. The number of immunized children has boosted to 53 percent, while deliveries in maternal facilities—which are safer for mother and child alike—have also more than doubled. A massive number of people have been cured of TB. Public trust in the medical system has increased, thus initiating a virtuous cycle wherein more people get the treatment they need. This collaborative effort could serve as a model for other poor nations.

That is the power of civil society staffed and funded by common folks, working together with the public sector. There are plenty of ways your dollar can go far. Check out their website here to learn more and to donate. Rest assured it will be money well spent.

The World As 100 People

To better grasp just how much human conditions have improved only over the past two hundred years, consider the following summation, which imagines humanity as just a hundred people.

world-as-100-people-2-centuries-1

Imagine if you were surrounded by abject poverty and misery, but only years later find most people lifted out of deprivation and living comfortable lives; imagine nearly half of all the kids around you dying before their fifth birthday, but over the span of just a couple of years, such tragedies are virtually unheard of.

When you consider that these conditions were the norm for most of our 200,000 year history, and that only in the last two centuries — a relatively small blip in the timescale — have they reversed so rapidly, it is astounding how so many of us fail to realize how incredibly far our species has come.

Learn more about human progress from the source of this infographic.

A History of Human Progress

It goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of folks. People can be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in one way or another, but as economist Max Roser of Our World in Data points out in Vox.com, there has never been a time more worth celebrating in terms of moral progress. From poverty to literacy, the world is improving in so many areas, even if there is still quite a way to go. Continue reading

The Rapid and Massive Decline of Global Poverty

While too many people still struggle with deprivation and abject poverty worldwide, it is crucial to acknowledge just how far humanity has come in this regard. Over  at OurWorldInData.org, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser have put together an extensive, data-rich report on world poverty, and the results are outstanding to behold: in less than 200 years, our species has halved the rate of overall poverty while reducing the most extreme forms of it to a fourth of what it once was.

world-poverty-since-1820-750x535

Poverty has declined not only proportionally, but in absolute numbers: in 1820, the world’s population was just under 1.1 billion, of which more than 1 billion lived in extreme poverty — defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day.

As of 2015, there were more than 7.3 billion people on Earth, of which 705 million live in extreme poverty. In other words, despite a seven-fold growth in population, there are fewer poor people now than two centuries ago, when the world was much smaller.world-population-in-extreme-poverty-absolute

The rate of decline in poverty began to accelerate as we approached the 21st century. From 1990 onward, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined by 47 million annually — or 130,000 a day. It is sobering to imagine that as of my writing of this post, tens of thousands of people have climbed out of poverty since the previous morning. (I know it is not evenly distributed day to day, but you get the idea.)

share-in-extreme-poverty-by-world-region

Granted, progress in poverty reduction remains highly uneven: while Asia is no longer home to the most abjectly poor people, Africa has taken its place with the largest number and percentage of people in extreme poverty, at 383 million (although this is far fewer than the over 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific in 1990). And the Asia-Pacific region is still close behind with 327 million people struggling with dire poverty.

Here’s the breakdown along national lines:

tree-map-of-extreme-poverty-distribution-750x525

Nevertheless, most of the countries still struggling with high rates of poverty have still seen some progress over the years, even if it has been slow and at times sporadic. The gains may be tenuous, but they’re still there, and there are more than enough encouraging examples of previously poor nations making incredible strides over the last several decades (South Korea, Singapore, Ghana, etc.).

Indeed, if we assume that the current rate of poverty decline continues, the number of extremely poor people will decline by more than half by 2030.

 

What a time to be alive, no?

If you’re interested in learning more about the above data, including methodology, data quality, and the definition of terms, click here.

The Problem With Lotteries

Like most Americans, I never gave much thought to lotteries. They were just an amusing, unlikely way to get rich at the cost of a only few bucks and some minutes filling out tickets.

But as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, lotteries are big business in the U.S., and can very well be considered an industry in their own right. Consider the following chart based on data from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries (they’ve got an organization for everything these days). As of 2014, Americans nationwide spent more on lotteries than on all other forms of entertainment combined. Continue reading

Great Advice On Dealing With Panhandlers

Over at Everyday Feminism, wrote an excellent piece addressing how best to respond to panhandling, a sadly common experience in our daily lives that is usually met with indifference, discomfort, and sometimes even hostility.

For those seeking a more constructive and compassionate approach to panhandlers, the article is well worth reading in full. I personally found the following bit of advice to be especially worth highlighting, not least because it echos some of my own sentiments over the years: Continue reading

Polling The World’s Poorest People

All too often, the world’s poorest denizens are dealt the added blow of being invisible to their wealthier neighbors, governments, and even many of the humanitarian groups keen on helping them. Furthering worsening the plight of the poor, according to Claire Melamed of Aeon, is the shocking lack of information about what they think, feel, and experience everyday. Without these data, it is more difficult to connect to the human side of poverty, let alone to devise evidence-based solutions to alleviating it.

The World Bank recently did a brave and very revealing piece of research. They asked their own staff to what extent they imagined poorer and richer people in three countries would agree with the statement: ‘What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me’. Bank staff predicted that around 20 per cent of poor people would agree with the statement.

In fact, more than 80 per cent of poor people felt that what happened to them in the future depended on their own efforts – four times as many as the World Bank staff had predicted, and about the same proportion as richer people. It’s worth letting that sink in. Here we have staff in one of the most powerful development agencies in the world, freely assuming that the people whom they are employed to work with, and for, feel passive and helpless when in fact the opposite is the case.

If more people — from the average citizen to policy makers and development agencies — knew exactly what poor people believed and how they behaved, a lot more progress could be made towards eliminating this scourge once and for all. Continue reading

The Poor Are Neither Corruptible Nor Ill-Disciplined

To add further insult to the many injuries of poverty, those struggling to get by often face the heavy stigma of being perceived as lazy, irresponsible, and even immoral. Being poor is a less a product of bad circumstances and environmental factors, and more the result of stupidity, ill-discipline, and personal failing.

But as the New Republic reports, various studies are finding that the very nature of poverty makes seemingly irrational decisions perfectly reasonable.

The very definition of self-control is choosing behaviors that favor long-term outcomes over short-term rewards, but poverty can force people to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today.

Research supports this idea by showing that poor people understandably have an increased focus on the present. People who are among the poorest one-fifth of Americans tend to spend their money on immediate needs such as food, utilities and housing, all of which have gotten more expensive. In this situation, the traditional definition of self-control doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Working toward future rewards also requires trust that those rewards will be waiting for you when you get there. To shed light on this we can look at the the classic experiment about self-control–the “marshmallow game”. Researchers use this experiment to measure how well children can delay gratification. They put one marshmallow on a table and tell a child that she can eat the marshmallow in front of her, or wait a while and the experimenter will bring her two marshmallows.

It turns out that children don’t wait as long for a promised larger reward if they first learned that the experimenter was unreliable compared to other children who played with a reliable experimenter. And, of course, instability and unpredicability are hallmarks of life in poverty.

People who grow up in poverty quickly learn that it doesn’t pay off to save for an uncertain future if the reward they are waiting for sometimes isn’t there after the wait.

Indeed, if you don’t see a future, why bother saving or investing what little income you could spare, if any. The harsh and uncompromising demands of poverty make it so that short-term considerations are practically all that matter.

In our society, hardly anything is more adverse to survival than poverty. It would be foolish to spend precious mental resources thinking about solving a problem that won’t occur for a month when you can’t afford dinner tonight. A series of studies in 2013 on scarcity among people in the lab and farmers in the real world found that being deprived of money caused the equivalent of a 13-point drop in IQ. That kind of a handicap will make it hard for anyone to engage in the high-level thinking required for self-control.

Like any other kind of thinking, self-control can be taught. Children do better at self-control (and in school) when their parents teach them to solve problems independently and to participate in family decisions. But that kind of involved parenting takes time, and financially poor parents are often “time-poor”, too.

Family factors, like nurturing and stimulation, are directly linked to mental development and can be limited by time poverty. And parents living in poor, dangerous neighborhoods don’t give their children as much autonomy as parents who live in less dangerous neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean that poor working parents aren’t choosing to teach their kids self-control. It means they may be prevented from teaching self-control to their children.

Needless to say, poverty creates dire conditions for impressionable and developing minds. Poverty’s capacity to embed itself into the minds of young people is perhaps what is most pernicious, as perpetuates the psychological and physical consequences for generations.

A child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has less than a one-in-10 chance of moving to the top fifth, and even the brightest poor children are still less likely to complete college than average wealthy children. Evidence supports the commonsense conclusion that children in poverty have little reason to have high self-efficacy about self-control based on observing those around them.

Working out of poverty is an uphill struggle. The extra work required of people at the bottom to move up takes its toll on health. Poor children who succeed in school and life, particularly members of minority groups, often have worse health than those who fail, showing at least a 20 percent increase in a biological measure of heart disease risk.

A recent study found that adolescents from poor backgrounds with higher self-control did better psychologically but actually aged faster at the molecular level than those with lower self-control. Self-control and achievement require poor people to overcome a number of structural barriers and obstacles. This is stressful, and stress takes a toll on health. Navigating this difficult terrain causes wear and tear on key parts of the body such as the immune system and ultimately deteriorates health.

With all this mind, the article rightly points out the need to change how we frame the issue of self-discipline in the context of poverty.

We tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good thing and satisfying short-term needs is always a bad thing; we say that “self-control failure” is equivalent to focusing on the near term. This definition works well for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future. But self-control as currently defined might not even apply to people living in the permanent now.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times tackles the equally pervasive myth that the poor, being so weak-willed and negligent, are susceptible to further laziness and degradation when given assistance. So not only do the poor face ostracization and shame for their condition, but they are deprived of any help for reasons of weak character.

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work”.

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

So across widely distinct cultures and societies, handouts generally have no ill effect on work ethic or financial responsibility. Nevertheless, the myth of the corruptible poor remains widespread, if not intensifying. The culprit?

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology”, he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts”.

Some would argue that the U.S. is a different story, because we host certain ethnic, social, and cultural groups that are more prone to laziness than other societies. But decades of evidence from domestic welfare programs do not justify this hypothesis.

Already in 1995, an analysis of rates of birth to unwed mothers by Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley, found that welfare payments did not increase single motherhood. And the experience over the next 20 years suggested that ending welfare did not reduce it.

The charge that welfare will become a way of life reproducing itself down the generations is also dubious. Before welfare reform in 1996, some four in 10 Americans on welfare were on it for only one or two years. Only about a third were on it for five years or more.

And what about jobs? There is little doubt that welfare can discourage employment, particularly when recipients lose benefits quickly as their earnings from work rise.

Still, the effects are muted. For instance, in 1983 Robert Moffitt, then at Rutgers University, estimated that welfare reduced work by some four hours a week out of a total of 25.

“There is some disincentive effect consistent with theory, but the economic magnitude is not large”, said James P. Ziliak, head of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. “Oftentimes these disincentive effects are overstated in the policy discourse”.

Yet still these negative impressions of the poor — and the subsequent disapproval and gutting of aid — persists to punishing effect. Even when economic circumstances plummeted and people found themselves unemployed and financially unstable through no fault of their own, this already-baseless line of thinking persisted.

When the Great Recession struck, many of the poorest Americans found there was no safety net for them. “Extreme poverty was more affected by the shock to the labor market than in prior experience”, said Professor Hoynes at Berkeley.

Why is this debate still relevant today? The evidence has not caught up with the popular belief that welfare reform was a huge success.

The old welfare strategy … blamed for so many social ills died long ago. Its replacement is tiny by comparison, providing cash to only about a quarter of poor families and typically only enough to take them a quarter of the way out of poverty.

As long as we fail to accept the external and structural causes of poverty, in favor of blaming and shaming the poor themselves, the scourge of poverty, and its subsequent sociopolitical consequences, will continue for generations, squandering millions of lives in the process.

What are your thoughts?