The Causes of Poverty (56): A Lack of Social Mobility

Is a lack of, or a low level of social mobility a human rights violations? No, of course not. There is no right to be socially mobile or to end up in a different – preferably higher – social class than your parents. However, indirectly there is a link between social mobility and human rights. For instance, there is a human right not to suffer poverty. Poverty can have many causes and so there can be many things that violate our right not to be poor. One of those things is hereditary poverty: many of us are poor because our parents are poor. If our parents are poor, they won’t be able to offer us a good education, a social network and other resources necessary to make it in this world. The wealthy marry the wealthy, invest a lot of time and money in the education and socialization of their children, while the poor often have to marry in their own class and send their children to low-quality public schools. In addition, poor children tend to live in crime infested neighborhoods where drugs and violence are a constant temptations and good role models are rare. There’s also a high probability that their fathers, having grown up in the same neighborhoods and having faced the same temptations, are in prison. Some may occasionally escape their poverty, but a lot of poverty is hereditary.

Hereditary poverty is just another word for lack of social mobility. If there is no or little social mobility in your society, if rules, institutions and mentalities make it hard for people to escape the social class of their parents, then this not only reduces fairness, just reward and opportunity, but it also determines the kind of poverty in society: poverty becomes something like a hereditary disease, the poor become a permanent underclass, and society no longer helps people to break the vicious cycle of hereditary poverty and to enjoy fair and equal opportunities.

But it’s not just the type of poverty that is very specific in a society with low levels of mobility. Also the beliefs about poverty take a particular form. The typical view is that the poor are poor because of a “culture of poverty“, because they are undeserving, because they are burdened with low inherited IQ etc. Stories such as these are necessary in order to explain and justify hereditary poverty in a society that has decided not to offer better opportunities to the poor. The fact that some poor people are indeed undeserving and stupid is then brandished as a pars pro toto argument that blackens the reputation of a whole class of people and excuses the lack of fairness of the rest of society.

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

The Causes of Poverty (41): Racism

There’s a clear discrepancy between poverty rates for blacks and whites in the U.S. (as between races in many other countries). The question is to what extent racism is to blame. I mentioned here, here and here that some of the irrational and self-destructive behavior of a lot of poor people causes many to believe that the poor are themselves to blame for their poverty and that one shouldn’t look for external reasons such as racism.

If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it. (source)

Opinions like this are very common. But are they correct? Is it true that “neither bigotry nor even structural racism” can explain why an individual does not make a few simple choices that will drastically improve her life?

At first sight, it does seem that a few simply rational decisions about life will allow you to escape or avoid poverty. But on closer inspection that’s just begging the question: if things are so simple, why don’t people make those choices? Hell, it’s so simple that it should be obvious even to the stupidest among the poor! But if it’s not stupidity that causes people to fail to take the advice of finishing high school and not having children early, and not bigotry or racism, then what?

[The] insistence that the failure of so many blacks to avoid the perils that come with not finishing high school and getting pregnant before marriage cannot be explained by structure or bigotry is too outrageous to let pass with no reply. In fact they can be easily explained by structure. …

The school systems in black neighborhoods are underfunded and undeniably worse on average than those in white neighborhoods.  The quality of the school, its teachers and leadership has a direct influence on graduation rates.  Sex ed and access to contraceptives are also far worse in black communities.  The public health failures come well before this for many black youth.  The failure to provide adequate health care and nutrition to black adolescents has been linked to the behavioral and learning disabilities so prevalent in black schools.  The diagnosis of a learning disability is one of the biggest predictors of eventually dropping out of school, particularly in poor urban schools. (source)

And having more trouble finding a job because you’re name sounds black obviously has an impact on your prosperity, also for your children. And growing up in a poor family has consequences for your adult prosperity. When we look at incarceration rates by race, and assume – wrongly – that there’s no racism in play, what do you think it does to a child having to grow up without a father?

This means that there’s one less parent to earn an income, one less parent to instill the sort of discipline all children need to graduate school and avoid unplanned pregnancies.  Even if the incarceration only lasts briefly, it still means that once the parent is out of jail he or she will find it much harder find employment. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (28): Family Structure

Almost 30 percent of children [in the U.S.] now live in single-parent families, up from 12 percent in 1968. Since poverty rates in single-parent households are roughly five times as high as in two-parent households, this shift has helped keep the poverty rate up; it climbed to 13.2 percent last year. If we had the same fraction of single-parent families today as we had in 1970, the child poverty rate would probably be about 30 percent lower than it is today. Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

These numbers seem to correspond to intuition. It’s harder for one person to raise children than it is for two. And the risks of ending up in poverty are therefore higher. However, some caution is needed when linking poverty to family structure. Also, perhaps family structure isn’t so much the cause of poverty as its effect. And then there’s the fact that some countries, such as the Nordic European ones, have low marriage rates and high out-of-wedlock birthrates, yet they are much more egalitarian and have lower poverty rates than the U.S. (source). Part of the reason for this is the more generous welfare systems (and higher taxes ) in Nordic countries. Another part is the fact that

in the Nordic countries it’s quite common for committed couples raising children to just not be married. In the US a child whose mother isn’t married is typically growing up without his or her father being present, which isn’t the case in Sweden or Norway. (source)

“Born out of wedlock” doesn’t necessarily imply “single parent”. It’s family structure, and the presence of two parents – not necessarily “biological parents” or parents of a different sex – that helps families and children avoid or escape poverty, not formal or legal marriage status.

Unmarried biological parents in northern Europe are more likely to stay together to raise the kid than married parents in the US. (source)

This quote isn’t intended to imply that unmarried couples are better than married ones. Again, what matters isn’t marriage as such but family structure. And the focus on family structure isn’t intended to imply that all single parents are bad. Even if there’s only one parent, descent into poverty isn’t destiny. It also depends on the parent. Poverty isn’t a mechanical result of a certain family structure, but family structure does count in many cases (a poor single mother, even with the best intentions and efforts, will perhaps do worse than a celebrity divorcee). Having two parents is extremely helpful.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that poverty has many causes and family structure is just one of them, and most likely not the most important one. Hence it’s very well possible that a society with extremely high rates of single parents and births out of wedlock experiences less poverty (including child poverty) than another society where the large majority of children are raised by two biological parents and the large majority of marriages doesn’t break down.

Here‘s a graph indicating that living with only one parent certainly doesn’t condemn children to poverty.