Compassion and Inequality

Recently Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, published an article titled: “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive.” I tend to see what’s broken, more than what’s going right, so I found this a hopeful read. There really are ways to we can help with poverty, right where we are. Here a few parts of this article that stood out to me:

There’s bad news and good news.

Bad news: The wide gulf between Utah and, say, North Carolina implies that we do, in fact, have a real problem on our hands. A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in Charlotte has only a 4 percent chance of making it into the top quintile. A child in Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has more than a 10.8 percent chance — achingly close to the 11.7 percent found in Denmark and well on the way to the 20 percent chance you would expect in a perfectly just world.

Good news: Because income mobility is not low everywhere, it looks like a problem with a solution. It’s not just a fact of life like earthquakes. If one place can give people a reasonable shot at moving up, then other places could presumably follow suit.

But the church is quite clear that the help is a temporary waypoint on the road to self-sufficiency, not a way of life. People are asked to work in exchange for the help they get, and, as the bishop said, “We make a list of what will sustain human life, not lifestyle.” I sampled various of the food items, and all were perfectly tasty, but nothing was what you would call fancy. It’s a utilitarian stopgap, not a substitute for an income, and not meant to be; the help comes with a healthy push to get yourself back on your feet as quickly as possible. The two phrases I heard over and over were “individual” and “self-reliant.”

“It’s a failure on the part of many,” he said, “if this is going on for six months or a year and their condition hasn’t changed.”

The promise of this approach to mobility is actually somewhat disheartening to advocates. A conversation about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent points toward some solutions the government is good at — like taxing a tiny number of rich people and redistributing the money to those further down the income scale. But if the more promising solution to income mobility is to create a viable path from poverty to the upper middle class, then political support will tend to disappear. The class of liberal professionals who talk about reducing income inequality are not threatened by talk of taxing the 1 percent. But they would lose out from a broad equalization of incomes between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent.

This near-absence of racial diversity means that racism is largely left out of Utah’s conversations about economic inequality. That leads to some conversations around inequality that would be unbearably fraught elsewhere. When the poor people are, by and large, the same race as the richer ones, people find it easier to talk about them the way they might talk about, well, family members — as folks who may have made some mistakes and started with some disadvantages, but also as folks who could be self-sufficient after a little help from an uncle or a sister. It’s a very different conversation from “victim”/“oppressor” and “us”/“them”: a conversation that recognizes that poor people often make choices that keep them in poverty, but also that the constraints of poverty, including the social environment of poor neighborhoods, make it very difficult to make another choice.

In other words, while areas with high numbers of racial minorities did, in general, have lower levels of mobility (for whites as well as blacks), once they controlled for the family structure of the community, that effect disappeared. Marriage seems to have more of a correlation with mobility than race does. Homogeneous Utah is the real-world laboratory that bears out this theory, which in more diverse communities can be obscured by racism and racial activism.

The value of married parents — even if they aren’t your parents — may come from the peer effects that David Sims talked about. Neighborhoods model adulthood for kids. If you live in a neighborhood full of single mothers who had a hard time finishing school, that’s probably the future you’ll expect for yourself and your own kids. If you live in a neighborhood full of thriving two-parent families, that’s probably the future you’ll envision, even if your own father disappeared when you were 2. Marriage matters at the individual level, but it also matters at the community level, because the community can strongly shape individual behavior.

One thought on “Compassion and Inequality

  1. So true. Father and Mother together create an atmosphere of security, if they are on the same loving page, even if it is only mediocre, it is still better than not having a father fugure. I try to look at the glass as half full, and leading by example can make a difference. Thank you for sharing.

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