The Magazine

Poverty of Ideas

Is there anything new to be said about the poor?

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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The person with seven bee stings ... would not sacrifice much to relieve the sting on his hand, seeing that the pain of it was nearly drowned out by the pain of the six stings on his body. This would seem to be the position of very poor people, for whom work, schoolwork, and (in a much different way) moderation in alcohol use constitute sacrifices that would buy them too little felt relief to be worth making, so many are their troubles.

Let's stipulate that Karelis has accurately stated the problem of someone who's been stung multiple times. But his book is entitled The Persistence of Poverty, not The Persistence of Bee-Sting Pain. He therefore needs to show, and not just to assert, that the poor--to be fair to Karelis, the "very poor"--can aptly be compared to people who have been stung seven times. To simply assert the equivalence a priori is to be guilty of excessive abstraction.

It's reasonable to suppose that the poor can be placed on a continuum: Some of them would correspond to people with only one sting, others to people with two, etc. To the extent that significant numbers of poor people resemble people with only one or two stings (or, to look at it differently, people who already command the resources to pay for five or six dabs of salve), Karelis's analogy--and, more broadly, his critique of the relevance of marginalist economics for the poor--becomes less tenable.

To determine the resources of the poor and their capacity for self-advancement would, of course, require empirical study, not philosophical speculation. At least with respect to the American poor, data certainly indicate that many have fewer stings or more salve than a reader of Karelis might suppose. For example, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has recently shown, using federal government statistics, that 43 percent of poor American households own their homes. (A typical poor person's home is a three-bedroom house, with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.) The typical poor American has more living space than the average (not the average poor) inhabitant of cities like Paris and London.

It seems unlikely that poor Americans like these are the metaphorical equivalent of people with seven bee stings, for whom the effort to work to buy one dab of salve is not worthwhile.

In addition to the problem of determining the number of stings from which the poor actually suffer, there's also the problem of how many they suppose they have, and how many they should suppose they have. Here Karelis contradicts himself. In one place he asserts that a poor person's assessment of his condition can't be disputed. In effect, the poor person (like Cindy Sheehan, according to Maureen Dowd) has absolute moral authority.

To put it in terms of stings and salve, a poor Asian immigrant may regard an annual income of twenty thousand dollars as verging on sufficient--as leaving just a few stings unsalved--while a poor African American may regard that same income as very insufficient--as leaving so many stings uncured that it is not worth much effort to get another dab or two of salve. ... Behavioral differences [between Asian immigrants and African Americans] are to be explained as equally rational, benefit-maximizing responses to the same economic facts, seen and felt differently.

Elsewhere, however, Karelis takes a different view, arguing that poor people harm themselves when they exaggerate their plight and minimize what they might do to relieve it. Thus he contends that civil rights leaders (think, for example, of those who disparaged the desirability of "dead end" jobs) harmed their constituents when their rhetoric reduced "the marginal relief to be expected from a small improvement in objective circumstances. It might even be argued that this rhetoric worsened the poverty problem it was meant to help relieve."

In effect, the hypothetical Asian immigrant's reaction ("that $20,000 job is a step in the right direction") appears objectively preferable to--and more prudent than--the hypothetical African American's reaction ("that $20,000 job offers nothing but chump change"). Despite Karelis's earlier claim that the actions of the poor are rational, here he suggests that the failure to take a job is irrational. In short, he seems to question the basic premise of his argument.

When it comes to offering solutions to poverty, Karelis mostly advocates the expansion of the course correctly adopted by current American social policy: that is, the policy known as "making work pay," which seeks to make "work a more attractive option for low-income people through transfers and other provisions ... whose benefits depend on the recipient's working."