Envy and bad data confuse poverty issue

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By Harold Morgan

The forbidden dinner table topics are sex, politics and money, as I remember. Money —having it and not having it — has been getting pundit pontification recently in reaction to the 50-year anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
I have little experience with really serious money. My upbringing and my adult life have been fairly middle class. I have attended a few events where, as I said after one, “You can smell the money.” But I have never thought much about the money, one way or the other, good or bad. Ideas have always been more important.
The most recent financial association came when state treasurer candidate Tim Eichenberg put me in the same sentence with the Koch brothers of Wichita, Kan. The brothers, most of you may know, are very big money supporters of conservative causes.
Eichenberg was defending his “progressive” (i.e., left wing) bona fides against my argument that the progressive policy agenda of John Wertheim, also a state treasurer candidate, did not apply to being treasurer. The Koch aura was something! I don’t know if my ego can stand it.
In New Mexico, we have plenty of poverty and not all that much massive wealth. Sure, we have the occasional financier or movie star tucked in the piñons. But not the concentration found around New York.
Home prices offer one wealth measure. In metro Albuquerque, 30 homes sold for $1 million or more last year, up from 21 in 2012. For another measure, Phoenix Marketing International (phoenixmi.com) places New Mexico 27th among states for 2013, with 4.65 percent of households having more than $1 million in investable assets. Oddly (to me) this percentage has increased for five years.
Some poverty reflects choice. Living in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water predisposes one to poverty, however many centuries one’s family has lived in that particular nowhere.
Some of the rest of poverty reflects definition. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson asks unwanted questions. He wrote recently that “the share of Americans below the official poverty line has barely budged” in 30 years. “The trouble is that the official poverty rate is a lousy indicator of people’s well being.” Taking consumption into account, 5 percent is a better estimate of people in poverty, he says, not the received wisdom of 15 percent.
Michael Cox, then of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said pretty much the same thing in 1999.
As with the “war” on drugs, “war” on poverty is the wrong metaphor because as a society we are not going to respond with the total devotion of resources theoretically required by a war.
On Jan. 10 on the PBS show “Washington Week,” Gwen Ifill introduced the poverty discussion with, “Let’s take a longer view on income inequality.” In so doing she conflates the policy issue of a few people making mega money with the policy issue of a lot of people making little money. It’s a leap, I know, but it conjures images of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine regarded slaughtering the Bastille defenders as a detail.
President Barack Obama does the same thing. Income inequality is reportedly a planned theme of the State of Union address.
Envy ties the topics. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “It cannot be denied that democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart... Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality they can never entirely satisfy.”
Poverty is a huge, difficult problem that can only be addressed through mothers being married, education (finishing high school) and the like. But playing to the envy factor is more than a disservice. It might be dangerous.