Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As With Deficits, Child Poverty is Now Important

Michael Gerson always seems to be late to the game. When his lord and master, G.W. Bush, was posting record deficits, all was well. When President Obama took office Gerson reinvented himself as a deficit hawk. Gerson is now suddenly concerned about child poverty and its effect on our society, but nary a mention of G.W. Let's see, how well did G.W. do on the issue of child poverty?
The number of U.S. children living in poverty increased in 2007 — continuing an upward trend dating back to 2000: In 2007, 13.3 million children were living in poverty, up from 11.6 million children in 2000. The percentage of children living in families with incomes below the poverty line has increased from 16.2 per- cent in 2000 to 18.0 percent in 2007. Thus, a large number of children — nearly one in five — are poor.
Taking a look at child poverty rates over time, going back to 1959, you see a rapid decline of child poverty until 1969, a leveling off at about 15% through 1976, a modest increase until 1980 (the recession under Jimmy Carter), and then... "Morning in America" was associated with a massive increase in the child poverty rate. The rate dropped slightly below 20% toward the end of Reagan's tenure, then went back up to the mid-20's under George H.W. Bush. The rate gradually declined under Clinton and, as the quote above suggests, consistently rose under G.W. Bush. The current, severe recession has increased the child poverty rate, from about 19% at the end of G.W.'s tenure to about 21% today, below the peaks that occurred under Reagan and at the end of George H.W. Bush's tenure, but well above what I expect most people would deem acceptable or healthy for our nation's future.

What is Gerson's simplistic take on this? He resorts to a "correlation is causation" argument, arguing,
If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.
It's difficult to believe that Gerson was unaware that he was cherry-picking 1970 out of the five-year stretch between 1969 and 1974 when child poverty in this nation was atypically low. As you might expect, the decade of "free love" wasn't a high point for marriage: the number of children living in single parent families was 24% in 1960 and 46% in 1970 - so why was there a significant decline in child poverty over that period?

Please note, I don't want to diminish the importance of a stable family unit to child-rearing and poverty avoidance. But we shouldn't confuse a cause and effect, nor should we disregard the cyclical nature of poverty. When a girl becomes a mother with a partner who is unsuitable for marriage, uninterested in marriage, or both, she is set up for single parenthood, dropping out of high school or going no further in school, a work history (if any) that reflects her status as a parent of a preschooler, and in all likelihood subsequent relationships that similarly don't ripen into marriage. That may also be what was modeled for her by her extended family and within her peer group and community.

Gerson argues that it is "simplistic" to focus on "economic redistribution" as an answer to poverty. I'll concede the point he is trying to make, but at the same time point out that at least by definition if your society has enough wealth to go around you actually can eliminate poverty through income redistribution. The point he presumably is trying to make is that income redistribution won't actually solve poverty - you can mask or reduce it over the short-term, but if you withdraw the subsidies it will reappear. To argue otherwise would be simplistic, but arguably no more so than Gerson's suggestion that we could erase 30% of poverty by marrying off single mothers to unwilling suitors. Gerson quotes Brookings Institution researcers,
"Our research ... shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent."
Gerson focuses on marriage, not completion of high school, perhaps because he understands that a teen mother who has not finished high school is significantly less likely to do so even if she's married and is exceptionally unlikely to have a full-time job. I wonder what issue he's trying to avoid mentioning.

Gerson's argument on "simplistic" approaches to poverty is itself simplistic.
Passing the tax compromise between President Obama and congressional Republicans would be a notable achievement - but mainly a negative one. It would avoid a contraction of the economy in January, when tax rates are scheduled to broadly rise. Deficit hawks are unhappy with another round of borrowed stimulus. But the first step in the recovery of economic health is the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds. On this commitment, at least, bipartisanship has returned.

Yet the deal also sparked an ideological argument on the nature of economic fairness. To some on the left, the refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy was a moral failure - a surrender to inequality. Conservatives generally countered that economic inequality is a matter of indifference, as long as the economy is growing. Both arguments are notable for their shallowness.
Gerson's concept of the "deficit hawk" seems to align with that of other "conservative" commentators - deficits only count if they're created by spending, not by tax cuts. No true deficit hawk would have looked at the idea of extending tax cuts for the rich at a cost of $70 billion per year and shrugged that off as irrelevant to the deficit. Nor would they shrug off the other tax cuts or the higher-than-expected estate tax cutoff and its lower-than expected rate. A deficit hawk would look at the Republican proposals to "balance the budget" and laugh. "How can anybody think you can balance the budget without painful budget cuts and significant tax increases? And the Republicans haven't proposed even one meaningful budget cut." But then, both students of history and serious deficit hawks know that the Republican Party is not even slightly concerned about deficits - they're something to complain about when a Democrat is in office, but should never interfere with a tax cut or the out-of-control spending of a Republican administration.

I'm not sure who, if anybody, is making the argument that Gerson attributes to the left, that "We need to raise taxes on the rich so that we can redistribute wealth," as the arguments I've seen have focused primarily upon the fact that the Republican approach will increase the budget deficit by almost a trillion dollars over the next decade. Sure, I've heard arguments that continued tax cuts for the wealthy aren't likely to stimulate the economy and thus that, if we take the Republican position that the $trillion doesn't matter, the money could be better directed at other priorities. But nobody of consequence is making the argument Gerson presents. (Gerson also leaps from the mythic "to some on the left" to "Progressives... seem[] happy to accept ideological leadership from a self-described democratic socialist[, Bernie Sanders]." Logic isn't his forté.)

Gerson proposes an approach to poverty that he claims is a "should be common ground for the center-left and center-right".
A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor.
Here's something interesting, though - and although I've teased him for it I'm going to refer back to David Brooks and his magic marshmallows - the study Gerson uses as a basis for his article doesn't speak of quality high schools or college attendance - it speaks of completing high school, deferring childbirth, and holding a full-time job. That is, the underlying message is that a reduction in poverty is associated with learning how to complete things, learning responsibility, and deferring gratification. Improving schools and raising the rate of college attendance among qualified high school graduates is good for society, but for poverty reduction it's icing on the cake.

The largest fault with Gerson's list, of course, is that it's not a list of "center-left and center-right" ideas. It's principally a list of ideas from the political left that have largely been dismissed, ignored or subverted by the political right, including Gerson's former boss, George W. Bush. Yes, I understand that Gerson stuck that "school improvement" stuff in there as a monument to "No Child Left Behind" and the present push for improved inner city schools. But what was G.W.'s solution to teen pregnancy? Abstinence-only education and the undermining of family planning, both domestically and internationally. (Whoops.) What is the Republican response to initiatives to expand access to healthcare for struggling families? (Whoops.) What position typifies the Republican party on early childhood education in poor communities? (Cough.) While the criticism that Republicans only care about children until they're born is unfair, it's not without a kernel of truth. Even within the context of school reform, while G.W. seemed sincere in his desire to improve public education, the larger right-wing push seems animated by the opportunity to bash teachers unions.

Gerson's proposal to "increase the rewards for work" - how do you do that without redistributing wealth? The disincentive to work, after all, is that your public assistance will be reduced or eliminated based upon your income, so how do you increase rewards without creating a new subsidy? As for "encourag[ing] wealth-building and entrepreneurship", it would be nice if Gerson presented more than a sound bite. Maybe he pictures teen mothers making crocheted booties and selling them on Etsy?

All in all, if you want to put together and fund a comprehensive anti-poverty program, focused not on handouts but on improving poor communities with better support for family planning, families, access to health care, support for working parents, affordable, high-quality preschools, and support for helping kids - perhaps especially teen mothers - complete high school, you would be looking at programs and initiatives associated with the political left. The political right sounds more like Gerson - "All of that would be nice, but not if it means paying higher taxes. And spending on the poor? That's the one area where I'm serious about being a deficit hawk."

Gerson attempts to dabble in British politics, alluding to "the British Labor Party" as being socialist in the manner of Bernie Sanders, and suggesting that the true model for the Democratic Party is Nick Clegg and the (do you know this already) Social Democrats. Gerson's millimeter thick knowledge of British politics has apparently made him aware that Nick Clegg joined his party with the Conservatives in order to become part of the ruling coalition, and has backed severe budget cuts that are cutting back on the very types of programs Gerson just got through telling us were necessary to elevate families out of poverty. The standing of his party under its supporters is so low that it presently looks to be all-but wiped out in the next election.
Labour has risen about 10% in the last seven months by not being the Liberal Democrats. Converted into a House of Commons, these figures are sufficient to give Ed Miliband a majority of 18 whilst reducing the Liberal Democrats [from 57 seats] to just over 20 seats.
As a satirical "agony aunt" recently put it:
Dear Dr Mander

Earlier this year I decided to take a little break from front line politics and concentrate on writing. I have just published a brilliant and penetrating analysis of the crisis at the heart of globalised neo-liberal capitalism, including a visionary call for the recalibration of post-Keynsian orthodoxies to balance the efficiency gains of liberalised labour markets against the social consequences of asymmetric cross-border capital movements. It is, as I'm sure you can imagine, a real page-turner. Anyway, with this project out of the way, I'm ready to return to public life. I feel I have so much more to offer. But there don't seem to be as many opportunities around these days. How do you think my unique skills could best be deployed for the benefit of mankind?

G Brown

Dear Mr Brown

As I recall, when you were chancellor, agitating to become prime minister, you hinted that your leadership would mark a departure from the old politics of spin and that you would be guided by high principle. Once in office you stuck to the usual methods of shabby tactical manoeuvring, no one knew what you really stood for. Feint to the left, govern on the right; widely seen as unprincipled, failed leadership… Have you ever thought of becoming a Lib Dem?
As usual, whether by ignorance or by design, Gerson's advice to Democrats seems to amount to, "Load gun, aim at foot, pull trigger."

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