Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The American Way of Poverty: Thinking Too Small



Abramsky’s thought-provoking book is an ambitious task: he wants to follow the path Michael Harrington blazed in “The Other America” (as well as journalists like Jacob Riis before that). He wants to show the way poverty is lived in America, which he does for the first 200 or so pages of the book.  He then pivots and tries to lay out policy prescription to alleviate the suffering that he covers.

I have to go a bit back-handed here,  but the strength of this book is the interviews in the first part. Anyone who has had any sort of brush with poverty can see themselves the stories of the people’s lives he looks at. The problem is that in setting the stage for the policy prescriptions he favors, they may not do enough to show how systemic the issue is so it may not make the case for the changes the country needs made.  In reading the first part, the main thing I kept going back to in my head was the word “anecdotal”.  It is not data-driven.

I think that is also my worry about the second part of the book.  He claims to want to not make major changes, but that some of these things he wants to change at the margins could alleviate the issues he brings up in the first section.  They seemed so outside the current discourse that I turned to the back to check his bio asking myself “Is he an economist?” (Not that that precludes anyone from making policy prescriptions, but the numbers were getting a little out of hand (multiple 1% taxes add up.))

Namely, I flagged a one that I need to bring to light.  This was his proposal to start a national education fund like social security so that students wouldn’t need to borrow as much to go to tertiary school (258-60).  Not a bad proposal, but he wants to fund it with a payroll tax.  Once that starts working,  the idea is that whatever is in surplus would be paid directly to the national debt to make the tax more appealing to the debt hawks.  It struck me as a proposal from some undergraduate paper that was naive in the current political climate and in accounting. I say this as someone who wants full social revolution and thus am sympathetic towards  his project.  Perhaps Abramsky’s biggest error is in not shooting higher.