The “Improving Poverty Reduction in Europe” (ImPRovE) project, funded by the EU, aims to enhance understanding of what works in reducing poverty and increasing social cohesion. Information about the project and slides from the presentations at its first conference, held a short while ago in Brussels, are available here.
Archive for the 'Poverty' Category
That’s the title of a short article of mine in the current Pathways magazine. Pathways ought to be on the reading list of anyone interested in living standards, poverty, inequality, and mobility. And it’s free.
A few other worthwhile recent reads on these topics:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, A guide to statistics on historical trends in income inequality
Scott Winship, Mobility impaired
Miles Corak, The decline of the American dream
Reihan Salam, Understanding America’s income mobility problem
Mike Brewer and Liam Wren-Lewis, Why did Britain’s households get richer?
This New York Times story has it right: the German labor market now includes a sizable low-wage segment. This book has a very helpful comparison of developments in Germany with those in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. My take on what this implies for incomes, poverty, and policy is here.
Perhaps we shouldn’t.
The idea behind a poverty rate is that we set an income line below which people’s resources are deemed insufficient for a minimally decent standard of living. The poverty rate is the share of people in households with income below that line.
Because it’s a binary measure, it’s a crude one. Suppose a lot of the poor at time 1 have incomes just below the poverty line. The economy then improves, or the benefit amount for a government transfer program is increased, so at time 2 a number of those people have moved above the line. It will appear that poverty has been sharply reduced, even though the amount of genuine progress is small. Similarly, suppose a number of people who formerly had very low incomes move into the work force and experience an income rise, but that rise doesn’t quite get them above the poverty line. This is a significant improvement, but it won’t show up at all in the poverty rate.
This problem is well known among social scientists. Some therefore also calculate the “poverty gap” — the distance between the poverty line and the average income of those below the line. To that we can add inequality among the poor. Measures exist to incorporate either or both of these. But they are complicated and thus difficult to communicate to a nontechnical audience. One common measure, for instance, is the poverty rate multiplied by the poverty gap. This is better than the poverty rate by itself, but the numbers yielded by the measure don’t have an intuitive feel.
Is there a useful alternative? I think so.
Instead of a relative poverty rate, such as the official measure used by the European Union, I recommend the p50/p10 income ratio. Relative poverty is essentially a measure of inequality within the lower half of the distribution, so why not use a measure that more clearly conveys that? The 50/10 ratio is an inequality measure already familiar to social scientists, and it’s fairly simple to explain and understand. And as the first of the following two charts shows, the 50/10 ratio is very similar to the poverty rate multiplied by the poverty gap (the correlation is .96). The second chart shows that the poverty rate is a less effective proxy for the rate x gap.
Instead of an absolute poverty rate, such as the official poverty measure in the United States, we can use absolute household income at the tenth percentile (p10) of the distribution. Across countries and over time, this measure is very similar to the absolute poverty rate multiplied by the absolute poverty gap. But it’s much simpler and easier to comprehend. Also, it’s a low-end analogue to median (p50) household income, a common indicator of the living standards of the middle class.
Why the tenth percentile rather than the fifth or the fifteenth? Actually, I’d prefer the fifth, but there sometimes is reason to worry about data quality as we get close to the very bottom of the distribution. The tenth is reasonably close but not too close to the bottom, it’s a nice round number, and it already is commonly used in inequality measures such as the 50/10 ratio and the 90/10 ratio. But in truth, the choice of the tenth is arbitrary; it’s no more representative than the seventh or the twelfth or any other point at the low end of the distribution.
So we have good alternatives to the two most common poverty rate measures. But what about political impact? Isn’t the poverty rate a helpful tool in pressing policy makers to keep their eye on the least well-off? Maybe. Yet hardly any of Europe’s rich nations had an official poverty rate measure prior to the EU’s introduction of one a decade ago, while here in the U.S. we’ve had an official poverty rate for nearly half a century. The absence of an official poverty rate doesn’t seem to have impeded government commitment to the poor in Europe. And I’m not sure the presence of one has helped a whole lot here.
I don’t expect policy makers or social scientists to stop using poverty rates any time soon. And it won’t be disastrous if they don’t. But we could do better.
Many researchers and policy makers favor a “relative” measure of poverty. That’s because our notion of what constitutes a minimally acceptable standard of living tends to be shaped by what’s typical in our own society. This approach dates back at least to Adam Smith. Its contemporary popularity owes much to Peter Townsend and Amartya Sen, and to the fact that the European Union’s official poverty measure is a relative one.
A relative poverty measure is essentially a measure of inequality within the bottom half of the income distribution. As long as this is made clear, such a measure can serve a purpose. But it’s fairly common for commentators to refer to a relative poverty rate as though it’s an indicator of absolute well-being. A journalist or opinion writer or researcher may say something like “We’ve failed to make things better for the poor; the poverty rate is the same now as a decade ago.” When hearing this, some (many?) of us will assume it reflects stagnant incomes for households at the bottom. But low-end incomes may actually have increased; that can happen without yielding any reduction in the relative poverty rate if incomes in the middle rise too.
Consider the experiences of six rich nations from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s. The following charts show trends in relative poverty and in absolute inflation-adjusted household income at the tenth percentile (a good proxy for “the poor”) in three of the six: the United States, Canada, and Germany. In each of these three countries the relative poverty rate increased slightly over the period. And in each of them absolute incomes of low-end households were flat or increased only minimally. Relative poverty rates and absolute incomes tell a consistent tale.
The story is quite different in Sweden, Norway, and Ireland. Here too relative poverty rates were flat or slightly rising. But in these three countries the absolute incomes of low-end households increased by a substantial amount. The reason the relative poverty rate in these countries didn’t fall is that household incomes at the median increased just as rapidly.
Relative poverty is of some interest, to be sure. But to avoid confusion, we might do well to sometimes refer to it as “lower-half inequality.”
Reducing poverty is widely viewed as a key objective of a good society. The U.K.’s Labour government set a formal poverty reduction target in the late 1990s, and the European Union recently did so as well. In the United States, public opinion surveys consistently find a solid majority saying government spends too little money on assistance to the poor.
The standard poverty measure in comparisons of rich nations is a “relative” one. The poverty line for each country is set at a percentage, usually 60% or 50%, of that country’s median household income.
Which countries have been most successful in reducing relative poverty in recent decades? And how have they done it? Here’s what the picture looks like for twenty affluent nontiny longstanding democracies. The data are from three sources: the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), considered the most reliable for comparative purposes; the European Union’s Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU SILC), which covers recent years for EU countries; and the OECD.
As it turns out, there is hardly any success to explain. In almost every one of these nations the relative poverty rate was no lower in 2007, the peak year of the pre-crash business cycle, than at the end of the 1970s. The only clear exception is Ireland. Denmark also reduced poverty according to the LIS data, but the OECD data suggest little or no change. Portugal is another possibility. A few countries succeeded in reducing relative poverty during certain portions of this period, such as the U.K. in the early 2000s.
What accounts for this near-universal failure?
A relative measure of poverty is essentially a measure of inequality in the lower half of the income distribution. A nation’s relative poverty rate is determined largely by three things: wage inequality among individuals in the bottom half of the distribution, employment inequality among households in the bottom half, and the generosity of the public safety net. The wage distribution has become more unequal in many countries, though by no means all. This owes to a host of developments, including globalization, deregulation of product and labor markets, manufacturing decline, weakening of collective bargaining, and increased immigration of people with language barriers and/or limited job skills. The trend in employment likewise has tended to be inegalitarian, depending on the magnitude and character of the rise in single-adult households, the movement of women into jobs, and government efforts to promote employment. Government transfers have increased in a number of countries, but often only enough to offset the rise in market inequality. And in a few nations transfers have stagnated or decreased. (More discussion here, here, here, here, and here.)
I prefer a focus on absolute incomes and living standards rather than on relative poverty, and that approach yields a very different conclusion about progress in recent decades. Still, the widespread failure of rich countries to make any headway in reducing relative poverty rates is striking.
I share Robert Pollin’s view that the U.S. should strive for full employment — by which I mean, following his lead, an unemployment rate below 4%.
Can we do it? Pollin points to two historical precedents as grounds for optimism. The first is Sweden from 1960 to 1989. Sweden succeeded in keeping unemployment below 4% throughout those three decades by coupling employment-oriented monetary and fiscal policy with wage restraint. But Sweden’s central bank at that time was subordinate to the government. Ours, the Federal Reserve, is independent. Since the late 1970s, independent central banks such as the Fed almost always have prioritized low inflation, rendering low unemployment difficult to achieve. If the Fed isn’t on board, even a workable plan for full employment supported by the American public and our elected officials probably won’t be enough.
What about Pollin’s second precedent, the United States in the late 1990s? During those years the Fed, under Alan Greenspan, did keep interest rates low enough for the unemployment rate to drop below 4%. But Greenspan held rates low despite opposition from other Fed board members, who were concerned about potential inflationary consequences — particularly given the internet-driven stock market bubble. Greenspan took this stance in part because his belief in the self-correcting nature of markets led him to worry less than others about the bubble. In light of the painful consequences of the 2000s real estate bubble, I doubt we’ll see the Fed take that approach again for some time.
Do we need below-4% unemployment? Here a cross-national perspective might shed some light. The following charts show indicators of Pollin’s desired outcomes — a healthy economy, decent pay, low poverty, good working conditions, absence of discrimination — in twenty rich democratic nations. Each outcome is plotted against the number of years from 1979 to 2007 in which each country had sub-4% unemployment.
These charts tell us that while full employment may contribute to good outcomes, it isn’t a necessary condition. In each case, some countries have done well despite seldom or never reaching sub–4% unemployment during the measurement period. In some instances this is a function of strong unions or “production regimes” (think German manufacturing) that are unlikely to be relevant in the American context. In others, though, successful outcomes have owed much to government action.
This is good news because Americans have more influence on the policy choices of the government than on those of the Fed. Whether or not we get back to full employment, we can reach important economic and social goals.
Yet I fear this conclusion is too optimistic. I’m confident that the United States could achieve satisfactory economic growth, a reasonably high employment rate, decent wages, poverty reduction, good working conditions, and less discrimination without full employment. I’m less certain that we can manage sustained wage growth for those in the bottom half of the distribution.
The post–World War II experiences of the rich democracies suggest three routes to rising working- and middle-class wages. One is an environment in which firms face only moderate competition in product markets and limited pressure from shareholders, allowing them to pass on a significant share of growth to their employees. This characterized the period from the late 1940s through the mid 1970s, but it’s now long gone. The second is strong unions. I see little hope of that in America’s future. The third is full employment.
Is there any alternative? One possibility might be to use the Earned Income Tax Credit to subsidize wages. We could extend it higher in the income distribution (currently it phases out at about $45,000), reduce its connection to children (currently it’s minuscule for households with no kids), and index it to average wages (it’s now indexed to inflation). I would prefer the full employment path that Pollin envisions, in which wage growth comes from firms rather than taxpayers. But we ought to have a backup plan.
Here, compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The incomes of American households at the low end of the distribution aren’t especially high, and haven’t increased much, when compared to those of their counterparts in other rich nations. But perhaps this is an unfair comparison. After all, hasn’t the United States absorbed a much larger flow of immigrants than any other affluent country?
Actually, as the following chart shows, we’re not exceptional in this regard.
Does the U.S. have more of the type of immigrants most likely to struggle in the labor market — those with limited education? Again no. As this next chart indicates, here too we’re in the middle of the pack.