31 October 2016 — FAIR
The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof (10/28/16) blames the United States’ 21 percent child poverty rate on people who buy too many television sets.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for giving “voice to the voiceless” on international social justice issues, wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s Times (10/30/16) arguing for increased government action on poverty. His calls for heightened attention to economic deprivation, though, were buried in a larger message that was familiar to longtime Kristof-watchers: that the poor aren’t actually poor because they lack enough money, but because of their own moral failings.
Kristof’s op-ed, as is his custom, opened with an anecdote about a particular impoverished child, in this case a “sweet, grinning, endangered 13-year-old boy” in Arkansas:
Emanuel has three televisions in his room, two of them gargantuan large-screen models. But there is no food in the house. As for the TVs, at least one doesn’t work, and the electricity was supposed to be cut off for nonpayment on the day I visited his house here in Pine Bluff: Emanuel’s mother deployed her pit bull terrier in the yard in hopes of deterring the utility man. (This seemed to work.)
The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana.
To drive home his point, Kristof explicitly argued that this surfeit of entertainment options despite the lack of bare necessities was a sign of how America’s poor are trapped in a “cycle of poverty” that leaves them constitutionally incapable of adopting the behaviors that would enable them to live better lives:
What many Americans don’t understand about poverty is that it’s perhaps less about a lack of money than about not seeing any path out. More than 80 percent of American households living below the poverty line have air-conditioning, so in material terms they’re incomparably better off than poor families in India or Congo. In other ways their lives can be worse.
None of this is new terrain for Kristof, who previously wrote (5/23/10) of African poverty that “if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed,” and insisted (12/9/12) that poor families in Appalachia were pulling their kids out of literacy programs to earn disability benefits. But as in those past instances (FAIR Blog, 5/24/10; Extra!, 6/13), Kristof’s examples of the supposedly self-destructive poor clash with actual data:
- Owning three TVs—”two of them gargantuan large-screen models”—while not being able to put food on the table is certainly an arresting image, which is no doubt why the Times used it in its headline (“3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America”). But there’s a reason why many low-income Americans might be richer in appliances than in cash: Most poor families haven’t been poor for that long. A Robin Hood Foundation study (10/17/16) that tracked New York City families over three years found that 47 percent lived in poverty at some point—but only 5 percent in all three years, an indication of how families tend to cycle in and out of poverty over time. We don’t expect the well-off to sell their TVs on Craigslist as soon as they lose their jobs; for low-wage workers, though, still having nice things when their bank balance bottoms out becomes a sign of moral failing.
- Kristof suggests that what’s needed is more use of tools like early-childhood programs and financial literacy education, then approvingly cites former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for reducing child poverty from 26 percent to 14 percent between 1999 and 2004. In fact, though, the bulk of Blair’s reforms came not in the form of programs to change behavior but as simple cash transfers: Increases in the Working Tax Credit (the equivalent of the US’s Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor) and Child Care Tax Credit transferred an additional £18 billion a year to the poor, according to a study by Britain’s Institute for Fiscal Studies (6/6/13). And while child poverty fell dramatically, overall poverty fell more slowly, from 19 to 16 percent, and poverty for childless adults actually rose—exactly what you would expect if the key factor was receipt of government cash, not encouragement of better behavior.
- Financial literacy programs, writes Kristof, “help families manage money—and avoid buying large-screen TVs on credit.” But a 2013 study of poverty and decision-making (Science, 8/30/13) found that it’s the stresses of poverty itself that leave people without the cognitive bandwidth to think through financial decisions, not some inherent lack of economic intelligence. “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty,” Princeton researcher Eldar Shafir told CityLab (8/29/16). “All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”
- Kristof promotes programs to help at-risk teenagers avoid pregnancy, citing the example of a girl who became pregnant at age 13 after having sex with a 28-year-old man, but who hadn’t yet learned about condoms in school. (Kristof is silent on the matter of whether a seventh grader was in a position to demand condom use by her statutory rapist.) But while increased spending on sex-ed programs may be worthwhile, it’s not likely to do much to ease high poverty levels in the US: Teen pregnancy rates have plummeted by more than two-thirds over the last 25 years, while poverty rates have remained virtually unchanged.
Arguments that the poor are trapped in a “culture of poverty” have a long history, dating back to well-off reformers in the late 19th century. “These are folks who generally wanted to help, but were so blinded by their inability to think of poor people and poor immigrants as fully fledged capable humans” that they could only offer behavioral solutions, notes University of New Hampshire poverty researcher Stephen Pimpare, whose book The New Victorians traced the common threads linking 19th century poverty crusaders with today’s “welfare reformers” and their ilk. “They would offer structural diagnoses—’the buildings are in terrible shape, there’s no clean water, the children are dying of dysentery and malaria, we’ve got no access to good schools—for god’s sake, why do they drink so much beer?’”
It’s an attitude that shows up again and again among establishment approaches to poverty, from then–Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report that blamed “the deterioration of the Negro family” for black poverty, to Rep. Paul Ryan saying that poverty programs need to teach poor men “the value and the culture of work” (ThinkProgress, 3/12/14).
Kristof, in fact, has a history of echoing conservative talking points on poverty: His 2012 essay on poor families trying to cheat their way into SSI benefits came in the wake of gripes about the alleged “disability con” by conservative pundits like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (FAIR Blog, 7/6/12). Likewise, noting that America’s poor families have televisions and air conditioning was a direct restatement of the Heritage Foundation’s 2011 report that observed that “the overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV and a host of other modern amenities,” making them “not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.” At the time, O’Reilly made hay with the report’s observation that 82 percent of poor families have air conditioning and 78 percent have a microwave, wondering aloud, “How can you be so poor and have all this stuff?” (Fox News, 7/20/11)—drawing mocking agreement from Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central, 7/26/11): “A refrigerator and a microwave? I guess the ‘poor’ are too good for mold and trichinosis.”
Kristof concludes his essay with the tale of a single mother who was sexually abused as a small child and physically abused by her baby’s father, and who ended up in drug treatment for marijuana and methamphetamine use. “Sure, Bethany made poor choices, but almost any of us born in that environment might have done the same,” he writes. “And while we should demand better choices from people like Bethany, we should also insist on better choices from our politicians; both are necessary to reduce poverty.”
It’s a balancing act—both the poor and government policies for the poor are to blame—that may win friends in Beltway circles, but does nothing to explain the actual reasons for persistently high poverty rates, let alone hint at ways to solve them. “Why are children in the United States poor—as [Kristof] rightly points out, significantly poorer than children in other countries?” asks Pimpare:
It’s because we have very low minimum wages, they have less job security; we don’t have things like universal subsidies for childcare, which makes it harder for those parents to go out and work; healthcare is still wildly expensive; we have very high disability rates—many low-income parents are raising disabled children. And we have stingy benefit programs to supplement that, all of which has been made worse since welfare reform in the 1990s.
Ultimately, argues Pimpare, blame-the-poor arguments have remained pervasive not because they have factual underpinnings—there is zero evidence that the poor are any lazier or are inherently worse at making spending decisions than people with higher incomes—but because they defend people from fears of falling victim to a broken economic system: “If you recognize that these are larger forces beyond your control, this stuff can happen to you too. It’s much easier to say ‘Well, that’s never going to happen to me, because I don’t do that.’”
For newspaper columnists as well as politicians, “there but for the grace of God go I” is a lot easier to say when you can blame big-screen TV purchases for making people fall out of God’s grace.
Neil deMause, a contributing writer for FAIR, writes frequently on poverty issues. He is the author of The Brooklyn Wars: The Stories Behind the Remaking of New York’s Most Celebrated Borough (Second System Press, 2016).
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