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earl 1795 days ago | link | parent

Everyone should read this link by John Scalzi, as well, as a companion to this article. Being Poor:

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/



noonespecial 1795 days ago | link

That's fantastic. They're all brilliant but, "Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.", just gives me chills.

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patio11 1795 days ago | link

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Let's not mumble-mumble "choices" -- that makes it sound like you could be doomed forever if, in a fit of adolescent stupidity, you went out with friends instead of studying for a geometry test.

Here are the durable wreck-your-life decisions you can make at age 14:

1) Dropping out of high school, at age 14.

2) Getting thrown in jail for crimes you committed, at age 14.

3) Getting pregnant, at age 14.

They don't seem all that hard to avoid now, do they? And they don't look all that hidden now, do they? Its not like rich people get together and say "Psssst, pssst: having a baby at age 14 will wreck your life. Pass it on but don't tell the poor people!"

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noonespecial 1795 days ago | link

When I was 14, I thought that sex in a pool was a contraceptive method because "the chlorine would kill the sperm".

14 year olds can be monumentally ignorant about very important things. How many geometry tests do you have to skip before its one too many?

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nostrademons 1795 days ago | link

I know a bunch of people that dropped out of high school (usually later, at 16 or 17, since you can't at 14 in MA) and several of them have done quite well for themselves. As in gotten into Smith, MIT, or Wellesley. Many of the better colleges don't care about that high school diploma if you can demonstrate that you can do college-level work.

My list of "things that will really wreck your life" includes:

1) Getting killed.

2) Getting addicted.

3) Getting pregnant.

4) Getting convicted.

In roughly that order of precedence. Also, many of my friends that actually did have babies as teenagers wouldn't actually say it "wrecked their life" - rather, it just meant that their expectations for what their life would hold became dramatically different than what they initially expected.

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krschultz 1794 days ago | link

Not even necessarily #2, our valevictorian in high school went to Harvard - and at age 14 was arrested, convicted, and went to juvie for a few days for shop lifting. You have to commit a violent crime to really screw up your life because everything else gets erased.

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run4yourlives 1795 days ago | link

I think that's a little extreme, although I understand the points of the articles and acknowledge the problem.

You can recover from your choices at any time in life, although it certainly gets harder the older you get, whether or not you realize it.

The notion however that your future path is set because of your past choices is part of the myth that the poor need to have destroyed through education. Tomorrow is about what you do tomorrow, not about what you did yesterday.

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lutorm 1795 days ago | link

"The notion however that your future path is set because of your past choices is part of the myth that the poor need to have destroyed through education. Tomorrow is about what you do tomorrow, not about what you did yesterday."

More blame-the-victim rethoric. Suppose what you did yesterday was give away all your belongings save what you wear, erase all higher education and job experience from your brain, and teleported you and your family to a city where you don't know anyone. You are now in an equivalent situation to many poor people. Now tell me with a straight face that what you do tomorrow would be unaffected.

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run4yourlives 1795 days ago | link

I'm not blaming the victim, I'm recognizing the only real solution.

I never said it would be easy, as it certainly wasn't for me. It is however the only method of success, period.

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lutorm 1794 days ago | link

I think we should focus more on why people end up in poverty than trying to "make them not poor". Prevention is likely to be more effective than correction. Things like living wages and abandoning local funding of schools would probably help.

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socjus 1794 days ago | link

The notion however that your future path is set because of your past choices is part of the myth that the poor need to have destroyed through education. Tomorrow is about what you do tomorrow, not about what you did yesterday.

Only if you don't believe in causality.

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run4yourlives 1794 days ago | link

Making forward progress in the future has little to do with your current starting point.

The time to achieve a desired end-point may vary, but until you've instilled day-to-day habits, the end goal is not achievable.

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whacked_new 1795 days ago | link

It's scary, but despite being written down for ages, and having parents and elders who have some sort of duty in imparting their "wisdom," people still make stupid choices for one reason or another, and commonly excusing themselves with "because they were young." It's not just scary on an individual level; it's scary on an organism level; it's scary how so many humans can be so resistant to self evolution: who is responsible for this?

The other scary thing is, poverty in an unequal society is a downward spiral, despite all the pop meritocratic sentiment that is especially rampant in the USA. Rich people are more educated, healthier, more emotionally stable, and... generally more attractive. This becomes a positive feedback loop down the generations.

The sickness is the widespread misattribution of the sum of all of these traits as the result of effort, rather than what is very largely a product of chance: you have no control over what environment you are born into. Essentially, people are credit hogs.

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ryanwaggoner 1795 days ago | link

Actually, the majority of millionaires in the US are self-made, first-generation wealth. We have very high economic mobility here, which seems to invalidate your theory.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_mobility

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perneto 1795 days ago | link

A lot of people in the US seem to believe this - it's the essence of the American dream after all.

But if you actually take a look at the Wikipedia article, you'll see this: "France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all have more relative mobility than the US, while only the United Kingdom is shown to have less mobility [1]" [1] http://www.economicmobility.org/assets/pdfs/EMP%20American%2...

It's still possible that the majority of millionaires in the US be self-made (although I'd argue that a middle-class born Web entrepreneur cashing out is far from self-made - see other comments about the importance of a middle-class upbringing).

But that doesn't necessarily give the US a very high economic mobility: here, like often, it's easy to only look at a few extreme cases and forget the averages.

The way I see it, the American dream is but a myth perpetuated by the wealthiest: if I believe I'll strike it rich someday, I won't want more high-income taxation or estate taxes... even though there's actually very little chance it'll happen.

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ellyagg 1795 days ago | link

It's not an absolute good to maximize economic mobility, at least as it's defined here. Here, mobility is inextricably tied to outcomes. There's no reason to believe economic outcomes should be randomly distributed in each generation.

People should be perfectly free from government interfering with their ability to pursue success, but one would expect the children of successful people to be more successful simply because of inherited traits alone. Moreover, even aside from money, to the extent that a child's environment is his relationship with his parents, you'd expect children of successful parents to be more successful.

There's also something to be said for parents being able to give their children an advantage in life.

A society that maximized economic mobility would not be a fair one. It would mean arbitrary wealth transfers from the richer to the poorer.

Personally, I'm in favor of a 100% inheritance/estate tax, with every citizen's child given an equal share of society's inherited wealth on his 18th birthday. It would be sad to give up parents' rights in this way, but I think it would be well worth it on a public policy level.

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ryanwaggoner 1795 days ago | link

A society that maximized economic mobility would not be a fair one. It would mean arbitrary wealth transfers from the richer to the poorer.

...

Personally, I'm in favor of a 100% inheritance/estate tax, with every citizen's child given an equal share of society's inherited wealth on his 18th birthday.

How ironic.

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whacked_new 1789 days ago | link

> I think it would be well worth it on a public policy level.

Loose ideas for counterarguments follow.

This policy is as arbitrary as the voting and drinking age. I think the age restrictions are utterly stupid (it completely ignores the huge variance of physical and mental development speed), and it is likely that the basis of this 18 stems from the same reasoning. Sure, there may be good reasons to pick 18 out of all other ages, but it is still based on scant information and remains mostly the arbitrary opinion of a few people. One who promotes Free Choice (which I suppose you are, because it is more friendly to ideas that are meant to promote social mobility) is not so likely to agree with this sort of mostly baseless policy.

Next, this system is very easily gamed. Suppose it really comes into effect. One way to go around is to start a business and transfer assets with it. Suppose you erect a barrier against that. Easy: immigrate out, immigrate back. Your society will want that immigrant money. Suppose you further erect barriers. Still easy: if the parents know that at age 18, the child will have total loss of control over the assets, all they will do is set up all the pieces before that birthday. Whatever safety net that was supposed to last 18+N years now is compressed into 18 years, with every penny spent the most expensive schools, equipment, teachers, social parties, and connection building. Other parents in the same situation would do the same, and you just constructed, in one generation, the noble class.

Third, some parents or potential parents will completely change their life strategy. For example, it becomes far less in their interest to have children to begin with.

Personally...

personally, I don't believe a fair system is possible. Blame gene recombination. You can only make it easier for the longs of one group to complement the shorts of other, hopefully balancing overall group happiness and overall group advancement.

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[deleted]
jibiki 1795 days ago | link

I'm beginning to see Raganwald's point about reductio ad absurdum.

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pixcavator 1795 days ago | link

>"France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all have more relative mobility than the US, while only the United Kingdom is shown to have less mobility [1]"

That report again! All I see is: some professor came up with his own definition of economic mobility (some unitless score, what the hell is it?) and now we are supposed to take these conclusions as a gospel.

UPDATE: Apparently I can't reply to the comment below, so I have to do it here. The comment only confirms what I wrote and does not answer the question: what is that score? How is it computed?

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perneto 1795 days ago | link

The report uses two metrics of economic mobility: absolute mobility, and relative mobility. Relative mobility is unitless because it's an elasticity: it measures how much parent income influences children income.

This is from note 13 in the report. Also, the authors didn't come up with this themselves. The data comes from here: http://www.iza.org/en/webcontent/publications/papers/viewAbs...

This explains nicely where the use of elasticity comes from.

Do you have other data that contradicts these conclusions?

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mseebach 1794 days ago | link

> "France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all have more relative mobility than the US, while only the United Kingdom is shown to have less mobility"

The key is the word relative. It's extraordinarily difficult to move out of the middle class, in both directions (up: tax, down: welfare). The difference between lower and upper middle class is maybe $75-125k income/yr, and completely reasonable to navigate.

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david927 1795 days ago | link

"We have very low economic mobility here" There. Fixed that for you.

http://www.economicmobility.org/assets/pdfs/EMP_American_Dre...

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whacked_new 1795 days ago | link

Regarding your reply, there are two things to address. First is that of economic mobility, which I referenced casually with "meritocratic sentiment." I'm not ready to say anything conclusive, but as other posters have pointed out, there is reason to disbelieve the popular belief.

In the very page you link to: "While there is some economic mobility between generations in the United States, it is still difficult to move up one or more quintiles in regard to one’s income."

But again, I am not one to make conclusions about this topic; I merely express skepticism and disagree with those who hold strong opinions one way or another, because either borders on irrational conviction.

The second point, which you don't address, is the effect of generational wealth on offspring. The effect is subtle and easy to overlook, but is as important as wealth itself. Why do the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor? It's not as simple as saying the system is or isn't in favor of mobility. You must also consider the possibility that rich offspring have become inherently stronger, smarter, and prettier than the poor -- and they are. There has been research on this topic, but it is intuitively obvious: a desperate person is not attractive, is brash, and is weaker against temptation.

The symptom is one: wealth disparity is increasing; but the disease is manyfold. That's my "theory". The problem here, is that somebody will write an article illuminating one facet of the problem, just like somebody takes a magnifying glass to examine a rash. Then somebody reads it and says, "let's apply Cortisone!" But it's actually an allergic reaction to an ingested substance.

The skin-deep understanding of society helps perpetuate this "credit hog" mentality. And that in my opinion is among the foremost barriers to equity.

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asciilifeform 1795 days ago | link

Search for Ilkka Kokkarinen's comment.

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earl 1795 days ago | link

Gah. People who think that the poor are lazy and shiftless are scum.

Some of the poor maybe be lazy and shiftless, but having middle class / wealthy parents doesn't just give you money and education and health -- it also gives you the very habits and abilities (saving, studying, deferring rewards, working hard, etc) that keep people from being poor or staying poor. Even things like applying to college are different if you have parents who can help guide you through the process -- I read a heartrending account of a (poor) child who got a scholarship to go to a private high school but his parents couldn't afford the transportation and he didn't have the institutional knowledge to know that if they'd told the school that, the school would have helped. So he declined a great education for the lack of $400.

Growing up middle or upper class also gives you all the social markers people look for -- whether it's straight, clean teeth, the ability (and skill) to dress appropriately for a variety of social situations, the proper manners to eat in a range of restaurants from a greasy spoon to a 3 star Michelin, a good suit to go to interviews, acne medication so you don't have acne scars, the ability to make small conversation about art, etc. If you read the literature, most Americans drastically overestimate the social mobility of America and are shocked when they hear how very heritable wealth is.

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jerf 1795 days ago | link

You sort of contradict yourself there. You decry people who think the poor are "lazy and shiftless", then go on to explain why the poor are shiftless. Explaining why someone is shiftless doesn't make them not shiftless. It may help you figure out a better way to address the problem, but merely explaining the problem doesn't change it.

Note I dropped the "lazy" qualifier. I'm not convinced that doesn't cut across social classes pretty freely, nor did you talk about it at all.

I do broadly agree, though. Many programs to "help the poor" amount to throwing money at them, but that doesn't strike at the root causes at all, which I think you're largely correct about. Pouring water into a leaky bucket doesn't help; you need to fix the leaks.

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ahoyhere 1793 days ago | link

Shiftless? The story about the kid? The kid is not shiftless. Were his parents shiftless? Possibly, but there's nothing in the story to indicate that they were anything but ignorant (e.g. didn't know there might be help available).

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jerf 1793 days ago | link

How hard exactly did you search for the exact sentence out of that post that, if I was solely responding to that, would invalidate my point?

You have to do your part when reading other people's arguments and at least try to find out why they might have a point, instead of searching for the exact angle that doesn't make sense. That pessimizes the information content you can get from someone; there's always an angle where it's wrong, no matter how you have to torture the English to get there, but because that's always true, that's information-free.

Incidentally, make sure you know what the term means, I had to look it up myself to make sure I wasn't misusing it: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shiftless

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ahoyhere 1793 days ago | link

It took about 10 seconds, because that was my immediate reaction and I didn't see anything else in your post to contradict it.

And I did look up shiftless beforehand.

Maybe you should consider that your arguments aren't half as clear as you think they are?

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mynameishere 1795 days ago | link

It's pretty wild that you could discount personal responsibility to the favor of things like "proper manners" at a 3 star and Acne medication.

I'm tempted to put responsibility at #1 for everyone who wasn't born with some obvious disadvantage (living in a 3rd world slum or having a serious disability.)

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davidmathers 1795 days ago | link

I'm tempted to say "fuck you and your ignorance" because, honestly, that's a pretty offensive thing to say. My own escape from poverty had nothing to do with personally responsibility, but had everything to do with winning the genetic IQ lottery and being in the right place at the right time.

It's true what they say about walking a mile in their shoes. You really have no idea what it's like.

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pg 1795 days ago | link

Saying "I'm tempted to say x" = saying x.

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davidmathers 1795 days ago | link

This is true. And my comment deserves all the down votes it gets. The "poor are irresponsible" comment pushed an anger button in me that I didn't even realize was there. I just had to vent.

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mynameishere 1795 days ago | link

I never said the "poor are irresponsible", and there's no reason to get hot over things people don't say. What I said was: Excepting serious disadvantages (like being disabled) responsibility is the #1 factor in whether you're poor or not. If you think that your genius-level IQ made you non-poor, then you're short-selling yourself, which is a psychological folly. Picture your same life, with yourself have twice the IQ but 10x the laziness. Now what's your bank statement look like?

There's also a #2 factor and a #3 factor and a #4 factor, etc, and some of those reflect the hideous face of dame fortune. But attributing guilt to ANYONE, the winner or the loser, on chance, is a stupid mistake. So-and-so was born with a low IQ. Not my fault. In fact, as a eugenics supporter, I did my best to prevent it. (<-- joke)

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pg 1795 days ago | link

Even though you guys are close to bickering, I have to say I like it that the comments on this site contain phrases like "reflect the hideous face of dame fortune."

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mynameishere 1795 days ago | link

I'm not tempted to say "fuck you" since I don't know you, but I will point out that people in a wide range of IQs are capable of lucrative trades and professions

http://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/Occupations.aspx

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cabalamat 1795 days ago | link

You're right, but it's also true that having a high IQ gives one an immense advantage.

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stavrianos 1795 days ago | link

It's worth pointing out that IQ's advantage is a diminishing return. I imagine that the advantage is in how many people you're smarter than, rather that in how smart you ultimately are.

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cabalamat 1794 days ago | link

I think it's a bit of both: absolute IQ is important, because it determines what cognitive tasks you can do, and because if you have destructive or sub-optimal personal habits, high IQ means it's more likely you will notice and diagnose them.

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ahoyhere 1793 days ago | link

You come from a culture that gives you that viewpoint. You don't understand how different it can be.

Two married friends of mine work in DC schools. The husband works in a charter school and handles their IT department (this is a joke - he essentially tries to scrabble up funds however possible so the kids have something). The wife works in a public school.

While the husband's job is tough - kids come from drug-addicted, violent families; kids come to school with guns, sometimes accidentally, cuz their brothers/sisters borrowed their backpacks, etc.

The wife's job is impossible.

She works in a classroom that has no books. This is not an exaggeration.

It also has no power.

Between her classroom and the next one, there is enough power to run a single box fan. So when it gets hot - and summer in DC is hellacious - they trade off. If one classroom acts up, the box fan goes away to the other classroom.

Now tell me. You are a kid in inner city DC - the richest counties in the US are nearby. You live in the seat of American political power, but the only people you know who have any money and any lifestyle are drug dealers and gun runners. Those people both embody and romanticize "live fast, die young."

You can't do anything but basic math, and you can't read anything more advanced than children's books... not that it matters, since your classroom has no books & no electrical lighting to see by.

And yet there is a skinny white lady (also far from wealthy) up front telling you to believe and stick with it and that you can get somewhere in life... through education.

With everything else that life has taught you, you'd have to be an idiot to believe her.

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earl 1795 days ago | link

Yeah. That reality is a major reason for my progressive politics. Plus the fact that my parents both grew up poor, obviously through no fault of their own, and I think a rich nation should do more to help it's poorest.

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bokonist 1795 days ago | link

I was a progressive until I discovered that the progressive movement caused many of the worst problems affecting the poor in America. Intentions are not the same as results.

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kiddo 1795 days ago | link

Like what?

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bokonist 1795 days ago | link

1) Read "Gang Leader for a day" or watch the Wire and then compare it to a first hand account of the slums of the 1900s. We are richer now thanks to technology. But the pathologies and decay of the slums is much, much worse. The progressive movement replaced a highly functional system of private and city government charity with a bureaucratic system that creates dependency, has no interest in actually solving the problems of the people it serves, and leaves housing projects to rot away.

2) Credentialism. From the Pendleton Civil Service Act to laws giving monopoly rights of practicing medicine to the AMA guild, the progressive movement towards credentialism gave government subsidies and monopolies to a class of people who could pass the civil service exam. These artificial barriers to entry result in a direct transfer of funds from the poor and working class to the college educated elite. For one example of many: http://libertariannation.org/a/f12l3.html

3) The Fed/Bretton Woods/Fiat currency. The progressive movement turned our financial system from a bottom up system (loans and banking happened at a community level) to a top down system ( all banking originates out of Fed guarantees and a government printed currency). This has resulted in insane profits for Wall St. At the same time, because the USD is the reserve currency of the world, the U.S. exports dollars, and then gets back real goods at a very cheap price. This is great for the civil service and for Wall St. But it sucks for those in manufacturing jobs, as they cannot compete when the currency is artificially priced so high.

4) Griggs Supreme Court case. The Griggs case basically banned the use of IQ tests by employers. So now bright young kids must spend lots of money on a 4 year long IQ test proxy, rather than getting a job directly.

5) Taxes. Overall tax burden has increased enormously since the early 1900's, even on the working classes. The working class has by no means received a corresponding increase in benefits. For example, poor people must now pay heavy education taxes. This is despite that after seventy years of massively increased taxes and longer hours at school, rates of vocab and numeracy have been flat (http://www.miller-mccune.com/politics/does-education-really-... ). The ROI on this education spending was zero. Yet we all continue to pay. Worse, progressive judges in the 1970 eliminated the ability of teachers to effectively discipline students. Now are schools have become Lord of the Flies hell holes, with the inner city schools being the worst. Taxes on the rich are bad for the poor too, if the government does not use the money any more effectively than the rich do ( as is often the case). The rich often invest in charity ( like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates or Buffet), or reinvest in companies and growth ( like Paul Graham or Marc Andressen). Either way, it increases the prosperity of the nation much more than government spending has.

6) Lax crime policies of the late 60's were primarily responsible for the dramatic increase in crime. This crime hit poor people the worst. It also drove the middle class, and the jobs, out of the inner cities.

7) Immigration. Whatever the other merits of immigration may be, it no doubt drives down the price of low skilled labor. Thus it is bad from the point of view of the American poor and working class.

8) Democracy promotion abroad. The U.S. has had the insane idea that simply by forcing elections in countries with 20% literacy rates, no judicial system, no institutions, no heritage of civic participation, and highly combustible tribal relations, that these countries would magically turn into replicas of America. In reality, the result has been civil war, coups, bad government, and corruption. U.S. imposed anti-imperialism and democracy promotion has been an unmitigated disaster for the third world. Read this article for one example, but there are many, many more: http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/08/country...

9) The interstate highway system. Created by progressives, it has increased the cost of living for everyone.

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msluyter 1795 days ago | link

Most of these points are highly debatable. I don't have time for all of them, but taking a couple...

Re: #3 -- I assume you'd prefer the gold standard. Most (non-Austrian) economists believe that the gold standard actually exacerbated the great depression. I simply would recommend readers read the entire wikipedia article including the section on disadvantages. Or read this:

http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2005/12/the_gold_standa....

Re: #6 -- your claim that lax crime policies were primarily responsible for the rise in crime. Evidence is actually that it was mostly demographics -- a rise in crime prone young men -- combined with the rise of drugs like cocaine, crack, etc... And there's little evidence that "tougher" and longer sentences do any good.

Re: #8 -- Democracy promotion abroad isn't necessarily a progressive idea. After all, our recent experiment in democracy promotion in Iraq is the brainchild of neoconservatives.

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bokonist 1795 days ago | link

Most (non-Austrian) economists believe that the gold standard actually exacerbated the great depression.

It's possible to run a sound currency regime using fiat dollars. But the U.S. has not done so. And the people pushing our decidedly unsound monetary policy were mostly progressive Keynesians.

As for the depression, the problem was that the government printed far more greenbacks than it could back with actual gold. As a result, people started trying to redeem their notes for gold. Since banks did not have enough gold to redeem, the banks failed. The government refused to devalue for many years, resulting in a catastrophic deflation. The depression could have been avoided by devaluing while still still maintaining the gold standard. If you step in front of a freight train and get run over, do you blame the freight train?

Re: #6 -- your claim that lax crime policies were primarily responsible for the rise in crime. Evidence is actually that it was mostly demographics -- a rise in crime prone young men -- combined with the rise of drugs like cocaine, crack, etc... And there's little evidence that "tougher" and longer sentences do any good.

The homicide rate in Baltimore, DC, and Philadelphia increased ten fold. Were there ten times the number of young men?

Re: #8 -- Democracy promotion abroad isn't necessarily a progressive idea. After all, our recent experiment in democracy promotion in Iraq is the brainchild of neoconservatives.

By any historical standard, neoconservatives are progressives. They did not splinter off until the 1960's when they got upset with the excesses of the left. Before that, they were Trotskyites. They are only considered "conservative" because the country as a whole has moved so far left in the past century. Neoconservatives inherit the tradition of promoting democracy from progressives like TDR, Wilson, FDR, etc. If you read the Weekly Standard or any other neocon rag, you'll find that they hold TDR as their idol. TDR founded a party called, "the Progressive party", and was an original proponent of promoting democracy abroad. The neocons are very much a part of the progressive movement.

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bena 1794 days ago | link

"The homicide rate in Baltimore, DC, and Philadelphia increased ten fold. Were there ten times the number of young men?"

I have to address this point. Doesn't have to be a ten fold increase in people to account for a ten fold increase in crime. A much smaller, unemployed group can dramatically increase crime for lack of better stuff to do.

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sokoloff 1794 days ago | link

Specifically as it concerns drug turf or gang related violence, there are significant network effects at work.

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psyklic 1794 days ago | link

How do the interstate highways increase the cost of living? They would seem to make it cheaper to transport goods via road and faster to transport people between cities?

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asciilifeform 1794 days ago | link

> How do the interstate highways increase the cost of living?

1) It killed the railroads. Rail is a fundamentally more efficient form of transportation than the truck, and thus adds less cost to pass on to consumers.

2) It allowed long commutes to become expected.

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psyklic 1792 days ago | link

Maybe they increased the cost of living, but they dramatically increased the quality of life ...

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asciilifeform 1790 days ago | link

> they dramatically increased the quality of life

Pray tell, how?

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DanielBMarkham 1795 days ago | link

I think a rich nation should do more to help it's poorest

I'm trying not to sound flip, but I challenge you to a thought experiment -- perhaps with real money, if you like.

Take some of your own money. Go find a poor person. Use your money to make them less poor. It's easy, really. If the nation can do it, surely you or I could do it as well, right?

The goal of this experiment is to take away lofty ideals and ask practical questions: just what are we supposed to do that is going to help? Just what really helps and does not hurt poor people?

So pick a strategy and pay for it. Let's agree to come back in three years and see how they are doing.

You'll find that there are only three cases: 1) the person is poor because they continue to make poor choices, perhaps due to addiction, mental capacity, or emotional issues, 2) the person is temporarily poor due to circumstances outside of their control and is quite able to get ahead in the world if given time and left alone, 3) the person is somehow trapped by circumstances outside of their control which will not go away: medical bills, bad spouse, etc.

#1 and #3 aren't going anywhere -- by definition they have chronic issues which money will not fix. No amount of mental therapy is going to make a drug addict into a banker: recidivism for drug addiction is around 95%. No amount of money is going to take the wife of a crack addict wife-beater and turn her family into Oprah's.

For #2, those guys are going to do well anyway. Sure, if you want to lend a helping hand to make yourself feel better, go for it. But don't kid yourself that you're the one making the difference. The difference comes from inside, not from outside.

I'm not saying don't help people. I'm saying that lofty, praiseworthy feel-good rhetoric does not fix a damn thing. Instead everybody just smiles and nods and agrees to spend money. If you or I have a hell of a time fixing one poor person, with direct one-on-one involvement, it is completely ludicrous to expect an impersonal government to do it for us. It's also a lazy man's morality -- I'd like to help people today, but I'd rather write a check (or even better, make the rich guy down the street write a huge check) and just go take care of it, okay?

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msluyter 1795 days ago | link

The problem with your thought experiment is that you don't help poor people by throwing money at them. (See the article referenced below). You help them by creating institutions which help children develop important cognitive skills and avoid making poor choices in the first place. Education, adequate housing, policing, parenting skills, etc....

If you grow up in an environment where getting good grades is actively discouraged by your peer group, your parents have poor/counterproductive parenting skills, you consequently have low cognitive abilities, and you have every incentive to drop out and sell drugs, then it's possibly too late, and no amount of cash in your pocket is going to help you. But if you have good parents, grow up in an environment that values education and that's safe enough and free enough of distractions so that you can learn, then you'll likely be in your category #2 above. Small advantages that begin at infancy accrue and snowball over a lifetime, and that's one reason why middle/upper class kids _generally_ tend to grow up to be middle/upper class adults.

From http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/970417/mayer.shtml --

"Increasing parental income not enough, according to study Increasing parental income alone is not enough to break the cycle of poverty, according to a new study by Susan Mayer, Associate Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies.

Even if their incomes increase, parents who have experienced persistent periods of poverty often have such problems as chronic illness and low cognitive skills that make it difficult for them to help their children escape poverty, Mayer reports in her new book, What Money Can't Buy: Family Income and Children's Life Chances. . . . The study shows that non-monetary factors play a bigger role than previously thought in determining how children are able to overcome disadvantage, Mayer explained. "Parent-child interactions appear to be important for children's success, but the study shows little evidence that a parent's income has a large influence on parenting practices.""

So in answer to your question, what would I do to help the poor, I'd say it'd have nothing to do with spending my money and everything to do with spending my time, say, tutoring and hopefully inspiring a child.

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DanielBMarkham 1794 days ago | link

spending my time, say, tutoring and hopefully inspiring a child.

Thanks. You are one of the few who have answered without spinning off somewhere else.

By the way, I do not know the answer to my question -- that's the reason I asked. I'm interested in hearing people's responses. I'm dubious as to your "creating institutions" statement -- it sounds wonkish, the type of thing to come out of a study or institute without being overly practical.

From observing myself and others who have come out of poverty, it is not intelligence, or money, or luck that makes the difference, most of the time. It's having personal one-on-one examples as a child, having a good attitude, and basically trying and not giving up. 90% of life is simply showing up.

I can observe, however, that western societies are creating multi-generational poverty. LBJ sat on a porch in Appalachia 40 years ago and declared a war on poverty. Since that time the U.S. has spent trillions and has the same basic poverty rate it had before. In fact, the same place LBJ stood is still an impoverished area.

I feel like there is a long, long, long way from where the politicians and spin doctors are, and what makes a real difference. I am also dubious that you can take the things that work and scale them. In the end, I think it comes down to religiously-motivated, local groups, personally trying to make a difference one person at a time. I don't think any of that scales very well. Although some people (mainly the ones looking for funding) would like us to believe it would. But that's just my opinion. I would like to do more -- hence my original comment.

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sonofjanoh 1794 days ago | link

I always say: to make a man out of your child spend half the money you're spending on him and spend twice the time with him. (not my line but liked it)

I also think that money for eradicating poverty would be better spent on scouts who can spot people or groups or communities worth being helped instead of helping them all.

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joetrumpet 1794 days ago | link

My response would have been essentially the same as msluyter's. Strong education systems, I believe, can provide the examples you mention are needed for a child, the examples that inspire the positive attitudes and strong work ethic. I was lucky enough to grow up with incredible parents who knew exactly what to do, so it's no surprise I'm doing much better than they did. For the kids who aren't as fortunate (and I am of course not blaming the parents, how could they know?), your peers and your school life are a dominant influence in life.

Some examples that may inspire some hope: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/opinion/08brooks.html (or for a more reputable but lengthier description of the same program, http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/hcz%204... )

http://uei.uchicago.edu/

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lutorm 1795 days ago | link

That sounds artificial. Prove to me that there are only those 3 cases and outcomes.

You are essentially saying is that only addicted, mentally ill or people with abusive spouses are permanently poor, everyone else is just temporarily poor. I think that indicates a monumental disconnect with reality.

Fact is, someone can work full-time in this country and still not be able to feed their family. How are they going to get ahead when not working because you are looking for a better job (let alone getting more education) would mean not feeding your family in the meanwhile?

I thought it particularly telling that you think case #3, "trapped by circumstances like medical bills" can not be fixed by money. Universal health coverage would take care of that one, for sure.

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cabalamat 1795 days ago | link

> The goal of this experiment is to take away lofty ideals and ask practical questions: just what are we supposed to do that is going to help? Just what really helps and does not hurt poor people? So pick a strategy and pay for it.

I can think of two things the government could do that would help poor people, while not costing anything (this is in the UK, but most probably applies to other countries):

1. Housing. Housing is very expensive in the UK, mostly because of govmt policies (incidently the people making these policies personally profit from them, surprise surprise). Reverse these policies and the cost of a house could easily be reduced to £20,000. -- http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/housing-policy-and...

2. allow people on low incomes to set up a "microbusiness" that as long as its turnover is less than £2000 a year, doesn't reduce the benefits they get. Any such businesses that currently exist are part of the illegal economy and not paying tax anyway, so the govmt wouldn't lose any revenue. -- http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/reforming-the-bene...

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noonespecial 1795 days ago | link

Whenever tax and "helping the poor" comes up, the argument always seems to degrade to higher taxes <-> bigger welfare checks.

Never underestimate the power of one well placed community center.

I know guys who have had the entire course of their lives altered by one mentor at one afterschool program. A lifetime of welfare checks could not have done so much.

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DanielBMarkham 1795 days ago | link

I think you're changing the subject.

As a participant in this thought experiment, you can (and should) use whatever resources you might have available. If volunteering at a community center is the thing, then you would go down there and do that. The question is: given whatever you want, what would you practically do?

I'll touched on the two follow-up questions, but they weren't the point 1) if you've got an answer, why aren't you doing that right now? and 2) do you feel it is moral to take your best guess for fixing poverty and push it on the rest of us? Would you mandate community center service, for instance, or do you think writing a check for somebody working at a community center has the same effect as somebody who has a life purpose for doing it? (and how would you tell the difference? What if there's simply not enough people who really care about working at community centers? What then?)

Those are great follow-ups, and the conversation should continue along those lines, but really, the point was what practically was supposed to make a difference if you personally had to do it. Not some generalities about some program that looked good on 60 minutes. What you would go do right now to make one person not poor. There's Bob. Bob is poor. Go make him not poor.

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david927 1794 days ago | link

I met a guy on the streets of Berkeley years ago. I gave him some money and he smiled a warm, effusive smile. He said it was his birthday. We started talking. He had been on the streets for a couple months, the result of discrimination. He was black, but he said it wasn't that -- it was age discrimination. He was in his 50's and as a hospital orderly, he couldn't move as fast as the young competition. He found himself out of work, ran through his savings, and then, once he was on the street, had a big problem giving out an address for a job application, getting cleaned up for the interview, etc.

I ran into him once a week, giving him as much as I could. $20 sometimes. Then I stopped seeing him. About six months later, I ran into him again, but it took me a while to recognize him. He looked great. A guy was reconstructing a house in the Berkeley hills and after meeting him, got him some work on the project. It was all he needed.

The U.S. spends a lot in taxes, and that money goes to such areas as defense, where "throwing money" at a situation is considered the norm, not the exception. Halliburton has gigantic, fat contracts in Iraq, for example.

I would rather we "throw money" at our neighbors when they're down on their luck, and donate money for tanks and B2 bombers. There's Iraq. Iraq is fucked. Go make it not fucked with your own money.

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greyboy 1794 days ago | link

> I met a guy on the streets of Berkeley years ago...

That's a really heartwarming story. Unfortunately, it's a single data point. We certainly can't expand that to cover all poor people, right?

After hearing people speak at RU meetings (and others), many of them had a single purpose in life: get high, gambling, etc (whatever said person's vice was). I've never personally heard of a perfectly fine individuals thrown out onto the streets, though I don't doubt it happens. However, where are the family members and friends? That would be the first place I turned - I'm not proud (not implying he was).

Side note: If someone is poor because they blew all their money on drugs, then lost their job and found themselves on the streets, I don't want to "throw" money at that problem. Sure, I'll buy a meal/gift card (or other necessities) as I've done in the past, but I'm not blindly trusting someone in that position. I wouldn't expect anyone to blindly trust me.

> The U.S. spends a lot in taxes, and that money goes to such areas as defense ...

Ok, we realize that number is about 20% - where is the other 80% going? There's a lot to fix other than just getting out of Iraq.

You want to know how to fix the problem of dealing with the poor? Change people's hearts. A caring, loving people will do more than any government sponsored program will. Unfortunately, the average US citizen is so far removed from the everday reality many others face. Their only insight into those struggles are the latest sob story drama of an American Idol contestant (or a Christian Children's Fund commercial). It's pathetic.

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david927 1794 days ago | link

>That's a really heartwarming story. Unfortunately, it's a single data point. We certainly can't expand that to cover all poor people

Sit quietly and really ask yourself if you think that was my point. Dan posted something that put the poor into three categories, all of which said, "You can't really help them." And that's a bullshit rationalization. America has little in the way of economic safety nets compared to most western industrialized countries and it shows. America also spends more on defense than every other nation in the world -- combined -- and it shows.

If you change your priorities, you change your results.

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ahoyhere 1793 days ago | link

Yes. Thank you. You covered everything I wanted to express, but better, and calmer.

Everyone arguing in these threads on HN - a bastion of privilege - should come live in a place like Vienna for a couple months. I've always been an advocate of the idea that a society is only as strong as its weakest member, but you can't know what you're missing in the US until you really experience it.

See the lack of fear in the cashier's eyes. Experience what a society is like when not a single person in it is worrying that he or she might get fired if they miss days of work due to sickness or a child's sickness.

See the total lack of homeless people.

See how it can be when all the sick are cared for, and the poor have good housing -- very nice community housing, that anyone in the country can live in, with a waiting list (poor and needy have priority), keeping them from being slums.

Everything here is better. Everyone here may live with dignity. That makes an enormous difference.

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david927 1793 days ago | link

I'm an American a few hours North in Prague. Drop me an email if you come up this way; it's in my profile.

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noonespecial 1795 days ago | link

I thought maybe we could use some of the taxes to build some community centers and hire some staff.

If volunteering at a community center is the thing, then you would go down there and do that. Can do. have done. But most of my volunteering has been fixing stupid "for want of $100" problems. Volunteers like the ones you speak of can line up but if there's no electricity, it doesn't matter.

do you feel it is moral to take your best guess for fixing poverty and push it on the rest of us? No. I feel its moral to use what science we can muster and use a results based approach to choose very wise uses of the limited resources we have.

There's Bob. Bob is poor. Go make him not poor. To help Bob (in this case) would require time travel. But Bob's son is a whole different matter. I can't cure stage 4 melanoma, but I can tell people to wear sunscreen.

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Retric 1795 days ago | link

Not all poor people are poor for the same reason suggesting any one solution would work in all cases is stupid.

I have helped several people become less "poor" by:

1) Teaching money management skills. The payback for a poor person investing 20$ to avoid a late fee can be huge. Poor people are so used the "fees" that it often quietly crushes them.

2) Suggesting a change of vocation. Not all low skill jobs pay crap.

3) Loaning money for an unexpected expense that was going to cost someone their new job. Their pay bump was going to cover the cost but they need the money before they could get to work...

4) Convincing someone to stay on Methadone.

PS: Ok, in a thought experiment I guess you could hand them a million a week which would solve most peoples problems, but that does not really scale.

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flooha 1795 days ago | link

I'm glad you weren't in charge when I was a #2. I made some bad decisions, like starting a family too early, and had some bad luck when I was young. When I reached the point where I was ready, I asked the Government for help and I received it in the form of assistance and college grants. I also worked and now have a large student loan payment, which I pay with a smile every month.

I earned a B.S.M.E, worked as a professional engineer and then switched to IT, because I wanted to and because I could, partially as a result of having a degree. This improvement in my life also enabled me to develop a startup in my spare time. I know that it would have been 10,000 times more difficult or impossible to do it without that help and opportunity.

The great part for the good 'ol U.S.A. is that they now have an extremely productive, $30k+/yr. tax paying citizen who is giving and will continue to give a great return on their investment. Assuming I don't get hit by a bus. ;)

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DanielBMarkham 1795 days ago | link

(flooha)I'm glad you weren't in charge when I was a #2.

(Daniel) I'm not saying don't help people.

I'm asking you what you personally would do.

Stick to the topic, guys. If you don't like the 3 choices I presented, fine. Provide your own. I didn't say people couldn't move between scenarios. Still stick to the topic. What would you personally do to make one person stop being poor?

To say you're glad I wasn't in charge assumes you know me. You do not. I've made my way from homeless to a pretty good life as a consultant. But telling my story is not the point of this question. Neither is any of the other smoke that is getting thrown up.

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anshul 1795 days ago | link

Fair enough. What you have pointed out is that there are not many micro-actions that can help the poor. But, that doesn't mean there aren't any macro-actions that can.

I am in India. I too can't do anything to help the poor but my government sure as hell can (and the good thing, at least for the moment, is that it is doing so).

(For instance, tax money can be and should be spent on policies, subsidies, etc that make education cheaper for everyone and make usury extremely difficult to practice. These are the real ways in which rich nations can help their poor. Seriously, how much money did you give to AIG and friends and how much money would it take to provide free college education for everyone in the US who could get through the selection process?)

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flooha 1795 days ago | link

It's anecdotal and just one point on the graph, but it is absolutely on topic and a valid response to your post.

You ask what I would personally do to make one person stop being poor? Well, it worked for me, so I would give that person the opportunity and the means to do so in the form of money for higher education. You can't personally teach the masses one on one.

I do agree with some of your points, but it seems that you are asserting that money isn't the answer. I disagree. If college were free then money wouldn't be the answer.

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nostrademons 1795 days ago | link

"If college were free then money wouldn't be the answer."

But college is free. MIT is free for people who make less than $100k/year. Stanford is free for people who make less than $100k/year. Amherst is free for people who make less than $60k/year. Most other private colleges will give full rides for people of the income level that this article is talking about.

Is money still the answer?

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jhancock 1794 days ago | link

you need better K-12 education for poor areas in order for them to qualify for these "free" university programs.

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nostrademons 1794 days ago | link

Yeah, that's what I see as the real problem. I'd really like to see more attention paid to preK-12 education in poor areas, because by the time these kids get to be 18, it's generally too late unless they have heroic individual will. But that means targeted spending - it doesn't necessarily take a lot of money, it takes a moderate amount of money that's well-spent on programs that make a serious impact.

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kingsley_20 1795 days ago | link

free for <s>people</s> Americans who make less than

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nostrademons 1795 days ago | link

I'm fairly certain it extends to international students as well - I had friends at Amherst whose families made less than $3000 annually (that's like 1/4 the poverty line in America), and there's no way they would've been able to afford it if they didn't have some serious scholarship money.

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mtpark 1794 days ago | link

This is only true for the best schools with a decent amount of money. As bloomberg noted in a piece last month, a lot of schools on the cusp are in big trouble financially and depend on tuition to make up the difference. For most of these schools, students making under whatever the line is, don't get full aid like they might at Harvard, MIT, etc.

Also, this only extends to international students at, again, the best schools. When I applied for college several years back, I think it was only five schools that were need-blind to international students (they were also very generous with that aid). There might be more schools that do so now but I can't imagine it's substantially more.

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MaysonL 1795 days ago | link

Grameen Bank.

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DannoHung 1795 days ago | link

Your argument is unconvincing. You rely too much on the idea that all malleable variables in a person's life are under their control and that they have the knowledge or personal ability to change them and furthermore that if they don't then they deserve the outcome.

I mean, seriously, "No, no, don't help this mother because her child has a chronic disability. It's not going to do anything in the long run." "This dude's poor and is manic-depressive, I don't think we should give him any psychiatric assistance because, seriously, he's not going to STOP being manic-depressive." "This guy over here lost his home because his house burnt down and his insurer is refusing to honor his claim. Don't worry about him! He'll just pick himself up by his bootstraps!"

Fuck off.

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socjus 1794 days ago | link

I'm not saying don't help people. I'm saying that lofty, praiseworthy feel-good rhetoric does not fix a damn thing. Instead everybody just smiles and nods and agrees to spend money. If you or I have a hell of a time fixing one poor person, with direct one-on-one involvement, it is completely ludicrous to expect an impersonal government to do it for us.

This seems like a worryingly general argument.

"If you or I have a hell of a time keeping out a gang of home invaders, with direct one-on-one involvement, it is completely ludicrous to expect an impersonal government to handle policing or national defense for us."

"If you or I have a hell of a time educating someone in a wide array of subjects, with direct one-on-one involvement, it is completely ludicrous to expect an impersonal government to handle schooling for us."

"If you or I have a hell of a time putting out a fire, with direct one-on-one involvement, it is completely ludicrous to expect an impersonal government to handle the fire service for us."

It seems like it could be used to argue for anarchy, effectively.

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randallsquared 1794 days ago | link

I don't think it's actually that general, because some of those things are better handled through groups of people rather than on an individual level. That's not to say that government is a good solution, but there are non-State group solutions to things (grocery stores, coops, etc).

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socjus 1794 days ago | link

I don't think it's actually that general, because some of those things are better handled through groups of people rather than on an individual level.

This is a reasonable point. But bear in mind that DBM's original point is subtly different: he effectively said that because it was hard to deal with poverty on an individual level, it would be silly to let government intervene. Your point looks to be different: that non-state groups can do things as well/better than the state. So the generality of my inference is unaffected.

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socjus 1794 days ago | link

A second problem with your comment occurs to me.

We can safely assume that earl and other people in this thread arguing in favour of state support of the needy don't believe that private charity is adequate. (If they did, why would they argue for state intervention?) As such, your comment - which essentially just urges people to go out and commit acts of private charity - is hardly going to convince them otherwise.

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run4yourlives 1795 days ago | link

It should do more to help its poorest succeed, but I draw the line at "handouts" in the strictest sense. I'm from Canada, so you can guess that my politics are probably a little further down the progression line than most Americans.

It's important though that we teach people to fish along with simply feeding them.

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j_baker 1795 days ago | link

Believe me, the poor in the US don't get "handouts." To get foodstamps or other welfare, the poor usually have to work ridiculous hours. And the money you get from being on welfare just isn't enough.

I'd rather see more legislation to ensure that people get paid enough money to survive a normal life than more handouts that just make them more dependent on the government.

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run4yourlives 1795 days ago | link

Oh I'm not suggesting they do, far from it. I wanted to temper my comment though because the situation in Canada is much different. I think we do a pretty good job up here of making sure most people don't fall through the cracks. Most of our poor are addicted to something, or native (let's not go there). It's easier to break the cycle in this country, although that isn't saying that it is easy.

Life is a lot rougher in the US if you're poor, and I realize that.

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jodrellblank 1794 days ago | link

Everyone should read that link to learn how nobody but poor and ex-poor people are allowed to comment on poverty.

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