The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (and Neighbors)

This is a revised version of a post that appeared three years ago, towards the start of the recession. It seems just as relevant, maybe more relevant, now.

A while back there was a study that suggested that it is more expensive to be poor in the US in some ways, than it is to be rich. And to anyone who has actually been poor, this probably made perfect sense. Among the ways that being poor cost you money:

1. Your infrastructure is limited, so you are limited to what fits in your infrastructure - for example, you don't have a car, so you can only shop at the convenience stores or those on your bus line, which are more expensive than the Walmart outside town. Your house or apartment is underinsulated, so your utility bills are extremely high. You have to have food and heat, so you pay them, and struggle. You can't move closer to your job so you could walk or take the bus because you can't afford housing in that area - or don't have first and last months rent.

2. You are less likely to have insurance, or to have exhausted your safety nets, so you are more likely to find yourself paying for acute costs because of things you've let go - instead of routine dental care, you don't got the dentist until there's a major crisis, involving multiple root canals. You can't afford to have the roof replaced, so you wait until things start falling on your head.

3. You find yourself falling behind on bills and incurring the costs associated with that fall behind - $50 here to get your electricity turned back on when the child support payment didn't come in, higher interest rates on the credit cards because of late payments, the returned check fee for the school yearbook you'd hoped your tips would cover...

4. You have little access to ways of getting ahead - you can't buy in bulk because you can't lug your toddler, your infant stroller and a 50lb sack of anything on the bus. You credit is shaky, nonexistent or minimal, so you can't borrow enough to start that business or get a car that wouldn't break down. You continue to buy the higher priced bags of rice, and pay the repair and heat bills - even though you'd save money with a minor upgrade that is as out of reach for you as the moon.

5. The upgrades are out of reach because things like "return on investment" don't matter when you can't front the cash. People who talk about "Only 3 years until you get your money back" for some investment don't quite grasp that fronting 3 years of anything is out of the question - you can't get the credit, you can't handle the payments, and odds are you, can't get the loan anyway.

6. Prior indebtedness weighs you down. Those payments that seemed so manageable when they were described to you at teaser reates or in isolation are now major drags on your budget. Borrowing to meet crisis needs - say, the payments you owe the hospital from after your car accident, make it less likely you can get along day to day. Moreover, the costs keep shooting higher, either because companies are making less profit and want more out of you, or because you screwed up as in #3. You now know you will never, ever get out from under it - and thus, your choices are limited by your debt.

7. Most of the people around you are also poor - limiting your ability to borrow from a friend or rely on someone else. Higher crime rates, more pollution in your neighborhood and a host of other ills make it harder to keep what you have - the money gets spent on a son's asthma medication because all the diesel plants are in your area, or your checks get stolen.

8. You must keep up appearances because you are under much closer scrutiny due to poverty - no lights in your house could mean your kids get taken away. What you buy is scrutinized by everyone at the checkout line since you receive SNAP benefits. You have to spend hours filling out forms and exposing choices others get to make in comparative peace in order to get help - and that comes out of your work time.

There are other ways that this high cost of poverty plays out, but these are enough examples to get you going. I'm willing to bet that some of my readers have experienced some of these costs themselves, and more probably will as the current economic crisis expands.

Individuals are not the only people struggling with restrictions - the debates over state budgets over the last few years have been fraught with these kinds of choices. Watching the New York State budget be negotiated is in many ways an exercise that mirrors, if often less ethically, the hard choices of the American poor.

We'd like to do better, of course, but it is increasingly beyond our states, just as it is beyond most poor people. For example, you'd like to move to a better apartment, the one with a bedroom for your daughters who now sleep in the living room, no cockroaches and nearer your husband's job. But to do so, you'd have to get first months, last months and security accumulated, plus the cost of the moving truck, and the landlord isn't likely to give you back the security deposit because he's that kind of landlord.

Now many states are in roughly the same situation as your average working class poor person - they aren't allowed to carry deficits (ie, no credit for you), and the one thing they can't do is get enough money to do the things that are really needed - even if they knew what they were. Thus, for example, my governor has just defunded a program created during the foreclosure crisis to keep families in their homes - arguing that the foreclosure problem is gone. Sure.

Meanwhile, their infrastructure begins to degrade, the rough equivalent of skipping your dentist appointments - the bridges start to crumble, the roads have potholes, etc... And of course, a year or two of neglect is going to mean more costs down the road - but that can't be helped.

Your infrastructure is now limited to the cheap energy infrastructure, the states are now limited to cheap energy adaptations - and emphasis on the cheap, or the ones that use what you've got - that is, without a public transport network, the best we can hope for is carpooling. Without good housing, the best we can expect is for someone in any given family to keep their house and move their relatives in.

Crises keep coming along to undercut your attempts to catch up. First the unemployment funds start to empty, and then the bond defaults start. A city goes bankrupt and needs state aid to keep the trash pickup coming, and no one budgeted for that. Yet another major weather disaster hits and they funding to rebuild is totally inadequate - in part because the sheer numbers of these disasters are going up.

Credit becomes almost impossible to find - no one wants your muncipal bonds, no one shows up for the auctions. Which means that you have to stop even the steps you've been taking to get ahead.

Things that would give you a return on investment - say, improving the quality of education for your million school kids, or ensuring that some of them can go on to college through state subsidies, or investing in the good health of your households, or making your environment attractive to the kind of businesses that are most likely to stay and bring in tax revenues become impossible - you don't have the money to make sweetheart deals or improve education - in fact, you are probably cutting back on it, and accepting that in 12 years, you'll pay the price in students who did about as well in 35 kid classrooms as you'd expect.

That is, real poverty works pretty much the same at the personal, state or national (Iceland, say) level - you can't buy much, you can't save money, your costs get driven up. you lurch from crisis to crisis, getting further and further in the hole. Some people are able to make their way out due to concerted effort and some good luck, but for most people, no matter how you try, getting out is almost impossible - because it would require the ability to invest in your future. At best, you can maintain, get a little ahead this year, and fall back next, rather as Japan has done for the last 25 years.

We are not yet at the stage where the US government is fully in this mode - it is still able to borrow money, some states are doing better than others but there are ominous signs of what is to come.

This is something that many people, maybe even most, simply can't get their minds around. The idea that a nation could get poor - and that it could look a lot like when Grandma got poor seems strange and alien. The idea that our country or our state would lose the ability to invest in major infrastructure changes, that we might have to live with what we have, seems very strange. After all, can't the nation run deficits? Can't it just print money?

Yes, it can. It can run huge deficits - but remember, all those debts will have to be served, and with a declining tax revenue (poor unemployed people and companies that go out of business pay fewer taxes than employed folks and functioning corporations) revenue base, more and more of our wealth has to go to servicing debt. And all that borrowed money has to come from somewhere - and more and more debt makes people less likely to lend. Think of it in terms of your own credit score - the lender is far more likely to lend to you if you have money in the bank and a loan level you can reasonably service than if not.

So what about printing money? Yes, the US can do that, indeed, the Fed already is. But the amount being printed is comparatively trivial in relationship to the debts and losses, and because we know that, the temptation is to hang on to any money we have in anticipation of the next emergency, which always comes.

To do it on the scale required would require that we decouple from the world economy in a lot of ways, and we've already seen ways that the process of globalization has coupled us up in ways that are hard to break up - consider Greece. If it ever becomes necessary, the process of decoupling is likely itself to be difficult, and deeply destructive to the economy. That is, you can print money if you've already accepted that other nations aren't going to be doing a lot of foreign investment - but that means seeing other economies take their wealth out of yours, which is a further deflationary event. By the time hyper-inflation does come, what you probably have is something called "collapse."

And by this point, the assumptions one can safely make about what nations can and can't do are probably rather different - one stops, I suspect, seeing nations like the US as powerful actors who could do things like extend health care to everyone or rebuild our energy infrastructure. Instead, governments can do one of two things - pitch their entire effort into ameliorating suffering, or pitch their effort mostly into preserving wealth and privilege. Something has to go, generally, and the first thing is likely to be the big dreams. Instead, goals get smaller - either petty small, or more basic, simpler and more honest. So far, we've been heavy on choice #2, help the rich, but there are still hopes for better, and reason to try and make it happen at every level.

I think a lot of people who "get" the hard realities of recession and then a period of long stagnation break off here, at the idea that there can be such a thing as a nation becoming poor. And yet, it does happen - we've seen standards of living fall in several nations over the last few decades.

Americans particularly struggle to get their heads around the idea that many of the big things governments do might cease to be done. And they may be right - but I think it is wise to recognize the real possibility that at the municipal level, the trash pickup and snowplows may stop, that at the state level, your wife who is an employee may end up collecting worthless IOUs, or that projects designed to improve all our lives may simply be abandoned mid project. And that at the national level, the scope of our ambitions may have to get smaller, and smaller, and smaller.

What is remarkable about the resilience of many (but not all) poor people is how often they do manage to keep themselves from hitting rock bottom, despite the heavy burdens they labor under. That is, while some do end up homeless and desperate, most ordinary poor people work their job or jobs, tend their kids, put food on the table, keep everyone going, get their kids to school. That's something that states and nations could also do - we will have sufficient resources to keep everyone fed, even to keep our commitments to the hungry in the world. We will probably have sufficient resources, if we choose, to educate children and offering support to the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable. But this will mean giving up most other goals - including the ones that talk about growth and executive salaries.

Moreover, there is an alternate form of poverty - self-sufficient poverty. That is, it is possible to shift one's idea of growth from the "quarter over quarter" to the "generation over generation" model - that is, you don't get richer with your annual raises, you get richer because your parents save what they have, and pass it down to you. They improve the soil, they plant more trees, they pay off the debt, and then you add the extra room for your sister and her children, dig the drainage, start the business that you can pass on to your children.

At the personal level, this is the difference between someone who lives on $2 per day and spends 80% of her income on food, and the one who lives on $2 per day on a piece of land that produces enough food for them. In the first case, a medical crisis is a disaster, and you can never get ahead, never find the money to send your kids to school, never keep up. In the second, most years the money can be held for doctor's bills and school fees, and there's hope.

The major functional difference in the two cases is this - the self-sufficient model has found ways around the constant falling behind. It isn't perfect - people do fall behind. But there's more stability in the long term. Instead of paying heavy fees to have services or energy provided, you might make your own, uisng a methane digester to provide cooking fuel from your own bodily wastes, or you might turn to community funds to start a business, or build a home, rather than banks with heavy interest rates. Infrastructure investments are slow and less frequent - but because you stay in place for generations, the accumulated benefit of those investments, whether richer soil or a carefully harvested and nurtured forest or a house adapted to your climate and needs accrue enough to each generation to make progress. Instead of always losing because you cannot afford to borrow ahead from the next generation or the next year, you never borrow against them - you plan for their enrichment by doing what you can, slowly, and then passing down the benefits over time.

At the government level, it is possible to respond to less formal wealth with more informal wealth - with improving people's quality of resources, rather than their quantity. This can be done by offering incentives for self-sufficiency, by campaigns to encourage people to feel content with what they have, or even proud of doing without and living well. It is possible to imagine a patriotism built on our ability to adapt to these changing conditions, a sense that we are passing on to the future a legacy. It is feasible to invest in natural capital - to plant more trees that will bear and serve future generations, to improve soil and water quality, and pass down more and better - not more and better economic growth, but more and better natural resources, and more and better priorities.

The transition from on-the-edge to self-sufficient is not a magic bullet - it is all poverty, and no poverty is bliss. I do not claim that poverty is an ideal - merely that at least for a time, it may be inevitable that we will experience a dramatic drop in what we can afford and have. In fact, many of us have already had that experience.

The good thing is that we are still endowed with resources, nature still repairs itself to a degree, though we have done deep damage, there is still hope for the future, if we were to invest ourselves in it. And the other good thing is that after a period of poverty, one can reach equilibrium in which one no longer feels poor - that is, perhaps if we can find a way to induce people to improve their culture, soils, water, resources, we may find that living with much less is easier, we have adapted and developed a vernacular lifestyle in which "poverty" is no longer the right description, because we are accustomed to what we have, and we get back a little more each year, a little more beauty, a little more community and social capital.


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Well, exactly. :-)

This is my life. I could add stuff. Like, what fun it is to be working as CEO of a national 501(c)(3), and living far below the poverty line, while dealing with donors who are bazillionaires. They don't actually understand. Nor do they offer to fix the problem. The guy now hired to run the organization I founded makes $80k+ and has a pension plan- of course. Where could you possibly find someone to do all this for free, for heaven's sake? A well known phenomenon.

As part of that scenario, it once got back to me that one of my board members was apologizing for/complaining about me to some of those donors, and was saying "well, he lives in abject poverty, you know." My response to him was "There's nothing "abject" about my poverty, whatsoever! I live in flamboyant poverty!"

While I recommend simplicity far beyond the norm; I don't really recommend actual poverty. As you so clearly point out- it sets up barriers that are very hard to overcome. I'd gladly do without some of them.

On an individual level, these are compelling arguments for NOT decentralizing poverty, but instead focus on solving the problems that make areas of poverty bad to live in, like schools and crime.

This city is embarking on a plan to close the projects (since they happen to be on prime real estate now) and relocate the inhabitants throughout the city. The residents of the projects -- which are the nicest, cleanest, best maintained projects you will ever see -- complained bitterly. It's not that the idea of living in a nicer apartment or house for the same price wasn't welcome, it was the loss of the networks of help they had built. Sally has a car that can be used to run errands, Judy is elderly and is home when school lets out and can keep an eye on the kids and Judy's granddaughter works on cars. And so forth.

Meanwhile our "bus line" consists of exactly one lonely shuttle (I jest... sort of. I think we have 2), and while it goes good places for low and mid income shopping and medical care, it doesn't pick up people where they live.

Frankly, it doesn't look good for those being relocated. I remember being desperately poor and it isn't fun, especially when people make innocent comments like "why don't you just get a new...?" and are bewildered at the notion that that solution, although a good one, just isn't in reach.

i'm going to second number 8. The shear amount of hassle dealing with poverty entails is really rarely noticed by people with money. I live in Wisconsin, and while there are some programs available, the amount of appointments, explaining to case workers past job statuses, paperwork, and dead ends is astonishing. If you have money you buy a service, if you don't have money you ask nicely for the service over and over and over and over again, wait, hope to get lucky, or just do without.

For a recent example, my boyfriend recently had a tooth removed, and we'd known we should get it removed for almost two years now and had talked with several dentists and the state's health care plan, including applying him for state subsidized care (got denied bc he is technically employed), and finally found a dentist reasonably in the area that does rates based on income, so we ended up getting 1/2 off. We only even got the dental work done at that point as he was in too much pain to safely do his job anymore. And that 1/2 off rate represents extensive research, calling offices, and explaining to several friends the situation before figuring out which action to take (not to mention his pain and the jars of painkillers we've run through lately!).

And obviously we're wealthy enough to even have computers and internet, the research process on this example alone would have taken twice as long without them. Yes, the library's always there, but for a lot of people 15 minutes a day surrounded by children isn't enough.

I guess to me, wealth is the option to outsource one's hassles.

The Fixx -

Great post Sharon. This all is something I have to keep in mind when trying to picture what it's like to truly be poor in this country. I've lived below the poverty line before...but I've always had safety-nets in the form of family, acquired physical capital (health and a good store of clothes), and the intelligence (spiritual and common-sense) to navigate things like banking and the job-application process, as well as to frame my position in society and understand where my true worth comes from. I recognize the generationally-poor and those affected by years of poor schooling, poor nutrition, drugs, etc. are in a much, much different position than I was when I was making minimum wage. (Of course, there are also multiple things they may have that I did not when it comes to knowing how to get by with less and in terms of acceptance among their peer groups and families.) Still, the same can be said for those who practice "voluntary" poverty. It's just not the same. When you have a choice still to jump back in with the consumers, it's a different ball game.

To draw on your metaphor between the personal and national: where we are now as a nation is also not the same as when we last had a run-in with limits and austerity. We are now a nation that is in many ways generationally poor, sick, and devastated...which is completely different than where we were in the 1930's and forward.

Still, this is all just life. And we live in interesting times, as everyone always has...


sharon, this is the most awesome of your blog writings. you are so good at your analogies and you are so capable with the wording of your thots. you speak to my life and the world i live in. whenever i sit down at my computer, one of my first thots is "i wonder if sharon astek has something new for me?"
and greenpa, i also wonder whatever became of you--because you haven't written anything for weeks!

I especially love "What is remarkable about the resilience of many (but not all) poor people is how often they do manage to keep themselves from hitting rock bottom, despite the heavy burdens they labor under. That is, while some do end up homeless and desperate, most ordinary poor people work their job or jobs, tend their kids, put food on the table, keep everyone going, get their kids to school."

In the rush to condemn those who are poor, politicians and pundits all too often overlook or ignore these things. Your words should be sewed onto a sampler and sent to Newt Gingrich.