James Baldwin on the Immiseration of Inequality

If you talk about inequality and poverty in the US for long enough, conservatives and even liberals of a certain recent vintage will invariably raise the point that bottom incomes in the US are higher than many incomes elsewhere in the world. Sure, they say, it may not be that those on the bottom of our society are treated totally fairly, but we must put it in perspective before we go about harshly indicting the political economic system.

Whenever I see this I am always reminded of the famous James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley debate, which took place in Cambridge in 1965. Prior to Baldwin speaking, a Cambridge student made exactly this point to Baldwin, but about Blacks in America.

I do not want to say the Negro in America is treated fairly. But at the same time, the average per-capita income of Negroes in America is exactly the same as the average per-capita income of people in Great Britain. […] There are only five countries in the world where the income is higher than that of the American Negro and they do not include countries like West Germany and France and Japan. There are in America 35 Negro millionaires. […] I do not, by saying this, wish to emphasize that the Negro is fairly treated. I merely wish to try and convey a more realistic and objective account of the situation of the Negro.

Of course, looking back, most probably cringe at this argument. Indeed, you can tell from the video that most found the argument preposterous even then. After all, we are talking about an America that was just one year past the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, an America that was only barely coming out of official apartheid.

Baldwin does not respond to the point directly in his speech, but he does a good job explaining how unsatisfying this objection is.

The most serious effect of the mill you’ve been through is, again, not the catalogue of disaster: the policeman, the tax drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. It is that by that time you’ve begun to see it happening in your daughter or your son or your niece or your nephew, you are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse than that is that nothing you have done and, as far as you can tell, nothing you can do will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster and possibly coming to the same end.

Immense inequality is experienced by those on the bottom end of it as a parade of humiliations and feelings of worthlessness. It is an index of domination in society. That income levels in other societies might be lower still does nothing to mitigate that suffering. And when combined with an understanding of the likely permanence of that situation for your descendants, there is an experience of hopelessness that is devastating.

Take Other Kids to Work Day Highlights the Absurdity of Social Mobility

Richard Reeves of Brookings has a piece in Quartz where he argues that, for social mobility sake, people should not take their own kid to work. Instead, Reeves explains, they should take a kid from a different social class.

This week, parents are being urged to take their kids to work for the day. But here’s a better idea: Don’t. Strike a blow for equality by taking a kid from a different social background instead.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day is intended to get children thinking about their future careers, but by having parents take their own kids to work, we perpetuate class divides. If your mother is a lawyer, you spend the day in a law firm. If your dad stocks shelves in a grocery store, then—if he is even allowed to bring you along—that’s what you will see. If your parents are unemployed, you don’t have a chance to go anywhere at all. And so the wheel turns.

In addition to suffering from the cloying pseudo-profundity of a Brooks Brothers (Arthur and David) proposal, Reeves’ suggestion also incidentally underlines how absurd the whole social mobility policy world really is.

When Reeves talks about bringing lower class kids into upper class workplaces, this is how he describes it:

Too many children end up in similar positions to their parents on the social and economic ladder. Given this, the case for exposing disadvantaged kids to white-collar jobs is pretty clear.

The idea here is that this kind of exposure will help the kids get one of these white-collar jobs as an adult, rather than ending up in the same position as their parents.

But, when Reeves talks about bringing upper class kids into lower class workplaces, he describes it this way:

Teenagers from affluent backgrounds often live in a bubble, surrounded by friends, neighbors and fellow students who share similar backgrounds. “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us,” writes the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids. He warns this represents “an incipient class apartheid.” It couldn’t hurt for upper-middle-class kids to step outside their bubble and spend a day in a working-class job.

So, for rich kids, the goal of this switcheroo is not to get them to take working-class jobs when they are adults. Rather, it is to give them a taste of how the other half lives in order to push back against social distance, or “class apartheid” in Putnam’s parlance.

But if rich kids are not going to be pushed downward into lower class jobs, then how will the poor kids progress upward into higher class jobs? Relative mobility requires upper class kids to descend the labor market hierarchy so that lower class kids can ascend it. Yet, Reeves’ own cutesy social mobility proposal betrays the brute reality that everyone secretly knows here: there is no way upper class parents are going to let that happen to their kids, certainly not in this society.

Social mobility policy and rhetoric is little more than a cruel show where we talk a big game about encouraging the disadvantaged to rise the ranks while fully knowing that rich parents will do absolutely everything in their power to keep that from happening. Brookings can invite 100 local DC public school students to their offices to meet Ron Haskins and hear him tell the war stories of how he gutted benefits for children like them, but unless Haskins is willing to raise his own kids to run a cashier at Walmart, no new spots at the top of the economic hierarchy will open up for those 100 kids to snag as adults.

None of this is to say that rich parents who do everything they can to give their kids every advantage in life are somehow doing something evil. Caring for and helping family and friends is a virtuous thing to do and a world where we demanded that people let those close to them flounder would be dystopian in many ways. But this is precisely the point: true social mobility would require an enormous level of restraint by rich parents when it comes to their children. And that is never going to happen.

What this means is that the primary focus of those interested in a fair economy should not be chasing some social mobility pipe dream. Rather, it should be on cramming down the income and wealth differences between the classes.

Poor Disabled Children Pushed Off of SSI Because of Welfare Reform Had Horrible Lives

When people talk about the 1996 welfare reform bill, they tend to focus on the law’s destruction of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). And for good reason. According to Danilo Trisi’s analysis of TRIM microdata, extreme poverty among children nearly tripled in the years after the new welfare regime was implemented.

But welfare reform did not just gut AFDC. It also made deep cuts to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for poor disabled people. According to new research, this change had similarly horrific results.

The contemporary discourse around the SSI cuts mirrored that of the discourse around welfare reform more generally. Major publications pleaded with President Clinton to avoid savage SSI cuts, something he could have done because the welfare law gave his administration the power to make the final SSI eligibility rule. But the Clinton administration ignored the pleading and instead issued a rule that it said would throw 135,000 poor disabled children off the SSI rolls.

In addition to making it harder for poor disabled children to receive SSI benefits, the welfare reform bill also made it harder for them to stay on those benefits when they became adults. Prior to welfare reform, when a poor disabled child turned 18, they could continue receiving SSI benefits. After welfare reform, poor disabled children had to be reassessed at age 18 under much stricter SSI eligibility criteria. Needless to say, as a result of this change, many more were dumped off the rolls than before.

The only upside of this particular policy reform was that it accidentally created the conditions for a quasi-random experiment. Poor disabled children who hit age 18 before the welfare law took effect were treated differently than those who hit age 18 after the law took effect. Because the assignment of children into the pre-reform and post-reform groups was arbitrarily based on when they were born, it is possible to cleanly study what effect the reform actually had.

Manasi Deshpande did exactly that in a paper published last year, which was recently written up on the Microeconomic Insights website. As you might expect, the results of the study were not pretty.

According to Deshpande, disabled youth removed from the SSI rolls under this change earned an average of just $4,400 per year on the labor market, an amount that was just one-third of the already-meager benefits they would have received had they stayed on SSI. Many earned nothing. Additionally, these youth did not see their earnings increase as they aged. Rather they consistently hovered in the $4,000 to $6,000 range for the rest of their adulthood.

Deshpande also found that the parents of these disabled kids did not increase their own incomes in response to their kids getting cut off from benefits. So the loss of income was not able to be offset by increased assistance from family. Additionally, the siblings of disabled kids booted off the SSI rolls in this way ended up with substantially lower earnings in their adulthoods as well.

What this research tells us is that welfare reform did not just blow a hole into the US poor relief system that subsequent generations of women and children have fallen into. It also screwed the contemporary generation of poor disabled children for the rest of their lives, condemning them to scrape together scant earnings in order to lead lives of crushing poverty.