The Great Escape by Angus Deaton

title text great escape: health, wealth, and the origins of inequalityThe Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton (2013)

This is a good book. Highly recommended to read. Full of details that are really informative but results in a lot of numbers and statistics. The following tidbits are in random order rather than sequentially by chapters.


I have been puzzled a lot by how poverty is established because when I do the math, to pay for all the basics (rent, food, utilities, phone, Internet, medical insurance, drug insurance, co-pays and deductibles) it exceeds poverty by a lot. I don’t even remotely understand how any one can manage just the cost of tampons and diapers alone, much less clothing, especially for growing kids — the mind boggles. Prior to this section there was an informative but this part was a bit tedious on the GDP and how it is calculated. Informative true, but also depressing because he described how inadequate and somewhat spurious our economic system is based on the GDP.

Just how the slower growth in GDP worked out for the worst-off can be seen by looking at what has happened to the number of people in poverty. Figure 2 shows the official poverty rates, published each year by the Bureau of the Census.  The heavy line at the bottom is the percentage of all Americans who live in poverty, starting at 22 percent in 1959 when the data begin, falling to a low of 11 percent in 1973, and then fluctuating around a gently rising tread. In 2010, 15 percent of the population was poor, about 2.5 percentage points higher than before the financial crisis. THERE IS MUCH TO CRITICIZE IN THE WAY THAT THESE NUMBERS ARE CONSTRUCTED, but on the face of it there is an ASTONISHING CONTRADICTION between the positive picture of progress in Figure 1 and the negative picture of poverty in Figure 2, especially after the slowdown in economic growth that began in 1970. The economy did not stop growing after 1973; income per person grew more than 60 percent between 1973 and 2010. YET NONE OF THIS GROWTH MADE A DENT IN THE POVERTY RATE. Wherever the HIGHER INCOMES WERE GOING, it was NOT TO THOSE WHO ARE OFFICIALLY CLASSIFIED AS POOR. and although there are the usual measurement difficulties — the incomes to go into the poverty statistics are NOT DEFINED IN THE SAME WAY AS THE INCOMES THAT GO INTO GDP — that is not the explanation of why economic growth has not eliminated poverty.

. . . . Note that the figure shows the fraction of people who are poor, so that, because the populations growing, the number of poor people is RISING FASTER than the poverty rate. Indeed, in 2011, there were 46,2 MILLION Americans in poverty, up by 6.7 million from 1959. [!!!!]

Here’s the part I find both horrifying but not a surprise: the HARD DATA and complex formula for determining what the appropriate dollar figure for poverty should be and how is has changed to reflect the changing world. [ha ha]

The poverty line in the United States was set in 1963-64 by MOLLIE ORSHANSKY, an economist working for the Social Security Administration. She calculated how much a family of four — two adults and two children — would have to spend on food to just get by, and then she MULTIPLIED that amount by three [3] on the grounds THAT THE TYPICAL FAMILY spent about a THIRD of its income on food. The number she came up with was $3,165 in 1963 dollars. In August 1969 that figure was officially adopted as the U.S. poverty line; apart from adjustment for changes in prices, it has been UNCHANGED SINCE. Its value in 2012 was $23,283. Keeping the line fixed this way is really very odd; why not retain the original procedure and redo Orshansky’s calculation for each subsequent year? Instead, the 1963 line has been RETAINED, adjusted ONLY FOR INFLATION.

So many questions erupt from this paragraph it would take at least a year of research to review the implications and actual consequences of such an undocumented and arbitrary decision based on “reality” at the time, which as we all know, is not that which is generally ensconced in the law or policies of the period. Remember the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT was only passed in 1964. And what impact was the contraception movement that really only gained massive use first after 1965 when the Pill was legalized by Griswold for MARRIED WOMEN and not until 1972 for all women regardless of marital status! Plus I find it hard to believe that given my grandmother’s generation where 13 siblings was NOT uncommon, and 8-10 pretty ordinary, that post baby-boom, the average family really only had 2 children. I tried looking at some Google search hits on government data but it all did seem to say 2 to 2.76 children on average. So I guess that begs the question as to whether AVERAGE is the correct basis for calculation.

And now too, since the freaking 1974 Hyde Amendment denied and continues to deny (the evil that men do that will have caused untold suffering for decades!!!! because of one asshole’s religious beliefs or general hatred of women, or who knows what he used to justify the amendment) POOR WOMEN access to abortion — that is FORCED BIRTH for the poor who can least afford either to pay for the abortion and certainly not necessarily to raise the child. And birth control pills were THE ONLY MEDICINE that was legally able to be denied coverage by insurers so of course they did not because MILLIONS of WOMEN used birth control pills and they made billions. Multiply that by the 40 years of fertility, and it costs women 40 x 12 by let’s say $15 (low end, could be $50) that is $7,200 that they have to pay out-of-pocket for a necessary HEALTH CARE drug. Add that to the persistence of the wage gap, and the peculiar over charging for “women”‘s merchandise” versus the same product on the “men’s” lane, and female dominate work receiving less pay  (although even there, the men in the job make more money, hold higher positions, and otherwise benefit from gender bias) and it becomes very obvious that being a woman costs a whole hell of a lot more than being a man (whose Viagra medication is medically necessary for THEM to have a good sex life).

Orshansky’s “scientific” derivation of the poverty line — based on the superficially sensible and rhetorically  appealing idea of nutritional needs — was little more than a smoke screen. Economists in the Johnson administration, preparing for what was to become the War on Poverty, needed a poverty line, and they were using $3,000 because it SEEMED like a SENSIBLE number. Orshansky’s tasK was to provide something more readily DEFENSIBLE than a number PLUCKED OUT OF THE AIR around the water cooler. Her first, and preferred, calcualtion was based on the Department of Agriculture’s “low cost food plan” and came in at $4,000. A more stringent “economy food plan” produced the line of $3,165, which was adopted, NOT because it was more soundly or more scientifically based, but because it was closer to the ORIGINAL $3,000!

. . . .If the Orshansky procedure had been updated — as she herself advocated over the years — the poverty line would have risen and would be much higher today than it actually is. . . . It is certainly hard to argue that the failure of the American economy to reduce poverty more rapidly is a consequence of inappropriate updating of the poverty line; QUITE THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE.

. . . . Not being able to meet those social standards [“being able to participate fully in society and live decent lives alongside neighbors”] of decency is an ABSOLUTE DEPRIVATION, BUT AVOIDING THIS ABSOLUTE DEPRIVATION REQUIRES AN AMOUNT OF MONEY that is RELATIVE in the sense that it must adjust to local standards. In wealthy countries like the United States, it is very hard to justify anything other than a RELATIVE POVERTY LINE. And the relative line means that, compared to 1963, both the level and the rate of growth of poverty are being UNDERSTATED.

In a world in which the general living standards are rising, an ABSOLUTE poverty line means that those who are poor are drifting further and further below the mainstream of society. In the United States, as elsewhere, the poverty line is used as a standard of eligibility for a range of benefits and subsidies, and if NOT updated with general progress, benefits are effectively being more and more tightly restricted over time. (p. 185)

In some discussion in a few previous pages he expressed the sentiment, I think falsely that by finding the poverty level to be one equated with FOOD subsidies is more tolerable to people who think they are helping hungry people — perhaps that explains the SERIOUSLY BAD HOSTILITY to Samantha Bee’s satire in Full Frontal on allowing government subsidies to pay for diapers. The venom in the comments was astounding! “let them wash cloth diapers” and much much worse. Also displayed a considerable ignorance of the related issues. However, as I said, I do not think that people have EVER SUPPORTED food assistance of any sort. There has always been a “get a job” and an “I have to work to eat and so should you” attitude. This is experienced, as I did one time while unemployed, buying small sirloin steak for a special occasion (having lived on tuna noodle casseroles for most of the time), the guy behind me in line loudly stated to the surrounding people, “Gee, I wish I had food stamps so I could afford steaks!”

This attitude is still prevalent based on the numerous Republicans trying to micromanage what you can buy with food assistance. The effort to not allow steaks and seafood represents exactly this attitude. You may not have to starve, but by God, my tax dollars aren’t going to given anything more than the bare minimum and NO JUNK FOOD FOR YOU. No fast food either. Tough shit if you are working two jobs and coping with two kids in day care. You should have thought of that before you opened your knees. THE INVECTIVE IS SO OFTEN DIRECTED TOWARDS WOMEN, ESPECIALLY WOMEN WITH CHILDREN, also known as that cherished “mother” in the endless “Thanks Mom” spouting of athletes and others. Not to mention the enshrinement of the nobility of MOTHERHOOD to the point where Republicans believe they are right to FORCE BIRTH on women. But then, once born, they go back to hating them for being poor.

The difference between relative and absolute is what results in Republican congressmen saying shit like, gee, there are no poor people here! Practically everyone has a refrigerator! A TV! A cell phone! Poverty is what you see in Africa with malnourished babies and children with flies crawling on them.

The failure to update the line is ONE of MANY flaws in poverty measurement in the United States. Another is that official statistics use income BEFORE TAXES and subsides to figure out whether or not people are poor. This is a CRIPPLING DEFECT. The many governmental programs to relieve poverty, including food stamps (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Action Program or SNAP) and cash grants paid through the tax system, are ignored. This has the absurd consequence that such policies, no matter how effective in reducing  actual poverty, cannot reduce measured poverty.

In short, there are many people in poverty, their are even more that, while not living in huts with dirt floors, are nevertheless poor to the point where their options to fully participate in society are restricted. But people have been taught that it is the people beneath them at the ladder that are taking away their steaks, not the people who are holding the ladder away from the building of success.

Though there are a few women specific mentions along the way, at the heart of the book — which covers global poverty issues as well — fails to recognize that the number one reason “people” are in poverty is that the majority of those “people” are women, single willingly or otherwise, and usually with children, willingly or otherwise. The number one predictor of poverty is gender.





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