The Large and Growing Caste of Permanent Underclass

The United States economy is in bad condition for much of the population, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by watching the news or listening to the president, especially if you live in the comforable economic segregation of a college town, a tech hub, a suburb, or a gentrified neighborhood. As the middle class shrinks, many fall into the working class and many others into poverty. The majority of Americans are some combination of unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid (Alt-Facts of Unemployment) — with almost half the population being low wage workers and 40 million below the poverty line. No one knows the full unemployment rate, as the permanently unemployed are excluded from the data along with teens (Teen Unemployment). As for the numbers of homeless, there is no reliable data at all, but we do know that 6,300 Americans are evicted every day.

Most of these people barely can afford to pay their bills or else end up on welfare or in debt or, worse still, entirely fall through the cracks. For the worst off, those who don’t end up homeless often find themselves in prison or caught up in the legal system. This is because the desperately poor often turn to illegal means to gain money: prostitution, selling drugs, petty theft, etc; or even minor criminal acts (remember that Eric Garner was killed by police for illegally selling cigarettes on a sidewalk); whatever it takes to get by in the hope of avoiding the harshest fate. Even for the homeless to sleep in public or beg or rummage through the trash is a crime in many cities and, if not a crime, it could lead to constant harassment by police, as if life isn’t already hard enough for them.

Unsurprisingly, economic data is also not kept about the prison and jail population, as they are removed from society and made invisible (Invisible Problems of Invisible People). In some communities, the majority of men and many of the women are locked up or were at one time. When in prison, as with the permanently unemployed, they can be eliminated from the economic accounting of these communities and the nation. Imprison enough people and the official unemployment rate will go down, especially as it then creates employment in the need to hire prison guards and the various companies that serve prisons. But for those out on parole who can’t find work or housing, knowing that at least they are being recorded in the data is little comfort. Still others, sometimes entirely innocent, get tangled up in the legal system through police officers targeting minorities and the poor.  Forcing people to give false confessions out of threat is a further problem and, unlike in the movies, the poor rarely get legal representation.

Once the poor and homeless are in the legal system, it can be hard to escape for there are all kinds of fees, fines, and penalties that they can’t afford. In various ways, the criminal system, in punishing the victims of our oppressive society, harms not only individuals but breaks apart families and cripples entire communities. The war on drugs, in particular, has been a war on minorities and the poor. Rich white people have high rates of drug use, but no where near an equivalent rate of being stopped and frisked, arrested and convicted for drug crimes. A punitive society is about maintaining class hierarchy and privilege while keeping the poor in their place. As Mother Jones put it, a child who picked up loose coal on the side of railroad tracks or a hobo who stole shoes would be arrested, but steal a whole railroad and you’ll become a United States Senator or be “heralded as a Napoleon of finance” (Size Matters).

A large part of the American population lives paycheck to paycheck, many of them in debt they will never be able to pay off, often from healthcare crises since stress and poverty — especially a poverty diet — worsens health even further. But those who are lucky enough to avoid debt are constantly threatened by one misstep or accident. Imagine getting sick or injured when your employment gives you no sick days and you have a family to house and feed. Keep in mind that most people on welfare are also working and only on it temporarily (On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc). Meanwhile, the biggest employers of the impoverished (Walmart, Amazon, etc) are the biggest beneficiaries of the welfare that is spent at their stores.

So, poverty is good for business, in maintaining both cheap labor subsidized by the government and consumerism likewise subsidized by the government. To the capitalist class, none of this is a problem but an opportunity for profit. That is, profit on top of the trillions of dollars given each year to individual industries, from oil industry to military-industrial complex, that comes from direct and indirect subsidies and much of it hidden — that is to say, corporate welfare and socialism for the rich (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars, Investing in Violence and Death). These are vast sums of public wealth and public resources that, in a just society and functioning social democracy, would support the public good. That is not only money stolen from the general public, including stolen from the poor, but opportunities lost for social improvement and economic reform.

Worse still, it isn’t only theft from living generations for the greater costs are externalized onto the future that will be inherited by the children growing up now and those not yet born. The United Nations is not an anti-capitalist organization in the slightest, but a recent UN report came to a strong conclusion: “The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.” Large sectors of the global economy are a net loss to society. Their private profits and social benefit are a mirage. It is theft hidden behind false pretenses of a supposedly free market that in reality is not free, in any sense of the word.

As a brief side note, let’s make clear the immensity of this theft that extends to global proportions. Big biz and big gov are so closely aligned as to essentially be the same entity, and which controls which is not always clear, be it fascism or inverted totalitarianism. When the Western governments destroyed Iraq and Libya, it was done to steal their wealth and resources, oil in the case of one and gold for the other, and it cost the lives of millions of innocent people. When Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State intervened in Haiti to suppress wages to maintain cheap labor for American corporations, that was not only theft but authoritarian oppression in a country that once started a revolution to overthrow the colonial oppressors that had enslaved them.

These are but a few examples of endless acts of theft, not always violent but often so. All combined, we are talking about possibly thousands of trillions of dollars stolen from the world-wide population every year. And it is not a new phenomenon, as it goes back to the 1800s with the violent theft of land from Native Americans and Mexicans. General Smedley Butler wrote scathingly about these imperial wars and “Dollar Diplomacy” on behalf of “Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers” (Danny Sjursen, Where Have You Gone, Smedley Butler?). Poverty doesn’t happen naturally. It is created and enforced, and the ruling elite responsible are homicidal psychopaths. Such acts are a crime against humanity; more than that, they are pure evil.

Work is supposedly the definition of worth in our society and yet the richer one is the less one works. Meanwhile, the poor are working as much as they are able when they can find work, often working themselves to the point of exhaustion and sickness and early death. Even among the homeless, many of them are working or were recently employed, a surprising number of them low-paid professionals such as public school teachers, Uber drivers, and gig workers who can’t afford housing in high-priced urban areas where the jobs are to be found. Somehow merely not being unemployed is supposed to be a great boon, but working in a state of utter fear of getting by day to day is not exactly a happy situation. Unlike in generations past, a job isn’t a guarantee of a good life, much less the so-called American Dream. Gone are days the days when a single income from an entry level factory job could support a family with several kids, a nice house, a new car, regular vacations, cheap healthcare, and a comfortable nest egg.

As this shows, it’s far from limited to the poorest. These days most college students, the fortunate few to have higher education (less than a quarter of Americans), are struggling to find work at all (Jordan Weissman, 53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed—How?). Yet those without a college degree are facing far greater hardship. And it’s easy to forget that the United States citizenry remains largely uneducated because few can afford college with tuition going up. Even most college students come out with massive debt and they are the lucky ones. What once was a privilege has become a burden for many. A college education doesn’t guarantee a good job as it did in the past, but chances for employment are even worse without a degree — so, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

It’s not only that wages have stagnated for most and, relative to inflation, dropped for many others. Costs of livings (housing, food, etc) have simultaneously gone up, not to mention the disappearance of job security and good benefits. Disparities in general have become vaster — disparities in wealth, healthcare, education, opportunities, resources, and political representation. The growing masses at the bottom of society are part of the permanent underclass, which is to say they are the American caste of untouchables or rather unspeakables (Barbara Ehrenreich: Poverty, Homelesness). The mainstream mention them only when they seem a threat, such as fears about them dragging down the economy or in scapegoating them for the election of Donald Trump as president or whatever other distraction of the moment. Simple human concern for the least among us, however, rarely comes up as a priority.

Anyway, why are we still idealizing a fully employed workforce (Bullshit Jobs) and so demonizing the unemployed (Worthless Non-Workers) at a time when many forms of work are becoming increasingly meaningless and unnecessary, coming close to obsolete? Such demonization doesn’t bode well for the future (Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration). It never really was about work but about social control. If the people are kept busy, tired and stressed, they won’t have the time and energy for community organizing and labor organizing, democratic participation and political campaigning, protesting and rioting or even maybe revolution.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we ever harnessed a fraction of the human potential that is wasted and thrown away, if we used public wealth and public resources to invest in the citizenry and promote the public good, we could transform society over night. What are we waiting for? Why do we tolerate and allow this moral wrongdoing to continue?

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A commenter below shared a documentary (How poor people survive in the USA) from the DW, a German public brodcaster. It is strange to watch foreign news reporting on the United States as if it were about a developing country that was in the middle of a crisis. Maybe that is because the United States is a developing country in the middle of a crisis. Many parts of this country have poverty, disease, and mortality rates that are as high or higher than what s seen in many countries that were once called third world. And inequality, once considered absolute proof of a banana republic, is now higher here than it ever was in the original banana republics. In fact, inequality — that is to say concentrated wealth and power — has never been this radically extreme in any society in all of history.

It’s not about a few poor people in various places but about the moral failure and democratic failure of an entire dysfunctional and corrupt system. And it’s not limited to the obvious forms of poverty and inequality for the consequences to the victims are harsh, from parasite load to toxic exposure that causes physical sickness and mental illness, stunts neurocognitive development and lowers IQ, increases premature puberty and behavioral problems, and generally destroys lives. We’ve known about this information for decades. It even occasionally, if only briefly and superficially, shows up in corporate media reporting. We can’t honestly claim ignorance as a defense of our apathy and indifference, of our collective failure.

Poverty isn’t a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash
by Rutger Bregman

On Conflict and Stupidity
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats
Stress and Shittiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Urban Weirdness
Lead Toxicity is a Hyperobject
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Trauma, Enbodied and Extended
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
Public Health, Public Good

Childhood adversity linked to early puberty, premature brain development and mental illness
from Science Daily

Poor kids hit puberty sooner and risk a lifetime of health problems
by Ying Sun

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Low-Wage Jobs are the New American Normal
by Dawn Allen

It’s clear that the existence of the middle class was a historic anomaly. In 2017, MIT economist Peter Temin argued that we’re splitting into a two-class system. There’s a small upper class, about 20% of Americans, predominantly white, degree holders, working largely in the technology and finance sectors, that holds the lion’s share of wealth and political power in the country. Then, there’s a much larger precariat below them, “minority-heavy” but still mostly white, with little power and low-wage, if any, jobs. Escaping lower-class poverty depends upon navigating two flawless, problem-free decades, starting in early childhood, ending with a valuable college degree. The chances of this happening for many are slim, while implementing it stresses kids out and even makes them meaner. Fail, and you risk “shit-life syndrome” and a homeless retirement.

Underemployment Is the New Unemployment
Western countries are celebrating low joblessness, but much of the new work is precarious and part-time.
by Leonid Bershidsky

Some major Western economies are close to full employment, but only in comparison to their official unemployment rate. Relying on that benchmark alone is a mistake: Since the global financial crisis, underemployment has become the new unemployment.

In a recent paper, David Bell and David Blanchflower singled out underemployment as a reason why wages in the U.S. and Europe are growing slower than they did before the global financial crisis, despite unemployment levels that are close to historic lows. In some economies with lax labor market regulation — the U.K. and the Netherlands, for example — more people are on precarious part-time contracts than out of work. That could allow politicians to use just the headline unemployment number without going into details about the quality of the jobs people manage to hold down.

Measuring underemployment is difficult everywhere. To obtain more or less accurate data, those working part-time should probably be asked how many hours they’d like to put in, and those reporting a large number of hours they wish they could add should be recorded as underemployed. But most statistical agencies make do with the number of part-timers who say they’d like a full-time job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide an official underemployment number, and existing semi-official measures, according to Bell and Blanchflower, could seriously underestimate the real situation.

The need for governments to show improvement on jobs since the global crisis has led to an absurd situation. Generous standards for measuring unemployment produce numbers that don’t agree with most people’s personal experience and the anecdotal evidence from friends and family. A lot of people are barely working, and wages are going up too slowly to fit a full employment picture. At the same time, underemployment, which, according to Bell and Blanchflower, has “replaced unemployment as the main indicator of labor market slack,” is rarely discussed and unreliably measured.

Governments should provide a clearer picture of how many people are not working as much as they’d like to — and of how many hours they’d like to add. Labor market flexibility is a nice tool in a crisis, but during an economic expansion, the focus should be on improving employment quality, not just reducing the number of people who draw an unemployment check. An increasing number of better jobs, and as a consequence wage growth, becomes the most important measure of policy success.

The War on Work — and How to End It
by Edward L. Glaeser

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. And in some locations, like Kentucky, the numbers are even higher: Fewer than 70 percent of men lacking any college education go to work every day in that state. […]

From 1945 to 1968, only 5 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — prime-age males — were out of work. But during the 1970s, something changed. The mild recession of 1969–70 produced a drop in the employment rate of this group, from 95 percent to 92.5 percent, and there was no rebound. The 1973–74 downturn dragged the employment rate below 90 percent, and, after the 1979–82 slump, it would stay there throughout most of the 1980s. The recessions at the beginning and end of the 1990s caused further deterioration in the rate. Economic recovery failed to restore the earlier employment ratio in both instances.

The greatest fall, though, occurred in the Great Recession. In 2011, more than one in five prime-age men were out of work, a figure comparable to the Great Depression. But while employment came back after the Depression, it hasn’t today. The unemployment rate may be low, but many people have quit the labor force entirely and don’t show up in that number. As of December 2016, 15.2 percent of prime-age men were jobless — a figure worse than at any point between World War II and the Great Recession, except during the depths of the early 1980s recession.

The trend in the female employment ratio is more complicated because of the postwar rise in the number of women in the formal labor market. In 1955, 37 percent of prime-age women worked. By 2000, that number had increased to 75 percent — a historical high. Since then, the number has come down: It stood at 71.7 percent at the end of 2016. Interpreting these figures is tricky, since more women than men voluntarily leave the labor force, often finding meaningful work in the home. The American Time Survey found that non-employed women spend more than six hours a day doing housework and caring for others. Non-employed men spend less than three hours doing such tasks.

Joblessness is disproportionately a condition of the poorly educated. While 72 percent of college graduates over age 25 have jobs, only 41 percent of high-school dropouts are working. The employment-rate gap between the most and least educated groups has widened from about 6 percent in 1977 to almost 15 percent today. The regional variation is also enormous. Kentucky’s 23 percent male jobless rate leads the nation; in Iowa, the rate is under 10 percent. […]

The rise of joblessness among the young has been a particularly pernicious effect of the Great Recession. Job loss was extensive among 25–34-year-old men and 35–44-year-old men between 2007 and 2009. The 25–34-year-olds have substantially gone back to work, but the number of employed 35–44-year-olds, which dropped by 2 million at the start of the Great Recession, hasn’t recovered. The dislocated workers in this group seem to have left the labor force permanently.

Lost in Recession, Toll on Underemployed and Underpaid
by Michael Cooper

These are anxious days for American workers. Many, like Ms. Woods, are underemployed. Others find pay that is simply not keeping up with their expenses: adjusted for inflation, the median hourly wage was lower in 2011 than it was a decade earlier, according to data from a forthcoming book by the Economic Policy Institute, “The State of Working America, 12th Edition.” Good benefits are harder to come by, and people are staying longer in jobs that they want to leave, afraid that they will not be able to find something better. Only 2.1 million people quit their jobs in March, down from the 2.9 million people who quit in December 2007, the first month of the recession.

“Unfortunately, the wage problems brought on by the recession pile on top of a three-decade stagnation of wages for low- and middle-wage workers,” said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group in Washington that studies the labor market. “In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there has been persistent high unemployment as households reduced debt and scaled back purchases. The consequence for wages has been substantially slower growth across the board, including white-collar and college-educated workers.”

Now, with the economy shaping up as the central issue of the presidential election, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have been relentlessly trying to make the case that their policies would bring prosperity back. The unease of voters is striking: in a New York Times/CBS News poll in April, half of the respondents said they thought the next generation of Americans would be worse off, while only about a quarter said it would have a better future.

And household wealth is dropping. The Federal Reserve reported last week that the economic crisis left the median American family in 2010 with no more wealth than in the early 1990s, wiping away two decades of gains. With stocks too risky for many small investors and savings accounts paying little interest, building up a nest egg is a challenge even for those who can afford to sock away some of their money.

Expenses like putting a child through college — where tuition has been rising faster than inflation or wages — can be a daunting task. […]

Things are much worse for people without college degrees, though. The real entry-level hourly wage for men who recently graduated from high school fell to $11.68 last year, from $15.64 in 1979, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. And the percentage of those jobs that offer health insurance has plummeted to 22.8 percent, from 63.3 percent in 1979.

Though inflation has stayed relatively low in recent years, it has remained high for some of the most important things: college, health care and even, recently, food. The price of food in the home rose by 4.8 percent last year, one of the biggest jumps in the last two decades.

Meet the low-wage workforce
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

Low-wage workers comprise a substantial share of the workforce. More than 53 million people, or 44% of all workers ages 18 to 64 in the United States, earn low hourly wages. More than half (56%) are in their prime working years of 25-50, and this age group is also the most likely to be raising children (43%). They are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, and many face economic hardship and difficult roads to higher-paying jobs. Slightly more than half are the sole earners in their families or make major contributions to family income. Nearly one-third live below 150% of the federal poverty line (about $36,000 for a family of four), and almost half have a high school diploma or less.

Women and Black workers, two groups for whom there is ample evidence of labor market discrimination, are overrepresented among low-wage workers.

To lift the American economy, we need to understand the workers at the bottom of it
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

These low-wage workers are a racially diverse group, and disproportionately female. Fifty-two percent are white, 25% are Latino or Hispanic, 15% are Black, and 5% are Asian American. Females account for 54% of low-wage workers, higher than their total share of the entire workforce (48%).

Fifty-seven percent of low-wage workers work full time year-round, considerably lower than mid/high-wage workers (81%). Among those working less than full time year-round, the data don’t specify if this is voluntary or involuntary, and it is probably a mix.

Two-thirds of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25-54, and nearly half of this group (40%) are raising children. Given the links between education and earnings, it is not surprising that low-wage workers have lower levels of education than mid/high-wage workers. Fourteen percent of low-wage workers have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 44% among mid/high-wage workers, and nearly half (49%) have a high school diploma or less, compared to 24% among mid/high-wage workers. […]

The largest cluster consists of prime-age adults with a high school diploma or less

The largest cluster, accounting for 15 million people (28% of low-wage workers) consists of workers ages 25 to 50 with no more than a high school diploma. It is one of two clusters that are majority male (54%) and it is the most racially and ethnically diverse of all groups, with the lowest share of white workers (40%) and highest share of Latino or Hispanic workers (39%). Many in this cluster also experience economic hardship, with high shares living below 150% of the federal poverty line (39%), receiving safety net assistance (35%), and relying solely on their wages to support their families (31%). This cluster is also the most likely to have children (44%).

Low-wage work is more pervasive than you think, and there aren’t enough “good jobs” to go around
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

Even as the U.S. economy hums along at a favorable pace, there is a vast segment of workers today earning wages low enough to leave their livelihood and families extremely vulnerable. That’s one of the main takeaways from our new analysis, in which we found that 53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64—accounting for 44% of all workers—qualify as “low-wage.” Their median hourly wages are $10.22, and median annual earnings are about $18,000. (See the methods section of our paper to learn about how we identify low-wage workers.)

The existence of low-wage work is hardly a surprise, but most people—except, perhaps, low-wage workers themselves—underestimate how prevalent it is. Many also misunderstand who these workers are. They are not only students, people at the beginning of their careers, or people who need extra spending money. A majority are adults in their prime working years, and low-wage work is the primary way they support themselves and their families.

Low-wage work is a source of economic vulnerability

There are two central questions when considering the prospects of low-wage workers:

  1. Is the job a springboard or a dead end?
  2. Does the job provide supplemental, “nice to have” income, or is it critical to covering basic living expenses?

We didn’t analyze the first question directly, but other research is not encouraging, finding that while some workers move on from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs, many do not. Women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs. In our analysis, over half of low-wage workers have levels of education suggesting they will stay low-wage workers. This includes 20 million workers ages 25-64 with a high school diploma or less, and another seven million young adults 18-24 who are not in school and do not have a college degree.

As to the second question, a few data points show that for millions of workers, low-wage work is a primary source of financial support—which leaves these families economically vulnerable.

  • Measured by poverty status: 30% of low-wage workers (16 million people) live in families earning below 150% of the poverty line. These workers get by on very low incomes: about $30,000 for a family of three and $36,000 for a family of four.
  • Measured by the presence or absence of other earners: 26% of low-wage workers (14 million people) are the only earners in their families, getting by on median annual earnings of about $20,000. Another 25% (13 million people) live in families in which all workers earn low wages, with median family earnings of about $42,000. These 27 million low-wage workers rely on their earnings to provide for themselves and their families, as they are either the family’s primary earner or a substantial contributor to total earnings. Their earnings are unlikely to represent “nice to have” supplemental income.

The low-wage workforce is part of every regional economy

We analyzed data for nearly 400 metropolitan areas, and the share of workers in a particular place earning low wages ranges from a low of 30% to a high of 62%. The relative size of the low-wage population in a given place relates to broader labor market conditions such as the strength of the regional labor market and industry composition.

Low-wage workers make up the highest share of the workforce in smaller places in the southern and western parts of the United States, including Las Cruces, N.M. and Jacksonville, N.C. (both 62%); Visalia, Calif. (58%); Yuma, Ariz. (57%); and McAllen, Texas (56%). These and other metro areas where low-wage workers account for high shares of the workforce are places with lower employment rates that concentrate in agriculture, real estate, and hospitality.

Post-Work: The Radical Idea of a World Without Jobs
by Andy Beckett

As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.

As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”. In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)

Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate “restructurings” for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy – work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home.

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.

The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.

Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: “Stress … an overwhelming ‘to-do’ list … [and] long hours sitting at a desk,” the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.

Work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home,” declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a 2017 paper. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.

And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation, and the state of the environment. Some recent estimates suggest that between a third and a half of all jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the next two decades. Other forecasters doubt whether work can be sustained in its current, toxic form on a warming planet. […]

And yet, as Frayne points out, “in some ways, we’re already in a post-work society. But it’s a dystopic one.” Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn – the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.

Last October, research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that UK unemployment is three times higher than the official count of those claiming the dole, thanks to people who come under the broader definition of unemployment used by the Labour Force Survey, or are receiving incapacity benefits. When Frayne is not talking and writing about post-work, or doing his latest temporary academic job, he sometimes makes a living collecting social data for the Welsh government in former mining towns. “There is lots of worklessness,” he says, “but with no social policies to dignify it.”

Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required.

We should all be working a four-day week. Here’s whyWe should all be working a four-day week. Here’s why
by Owen Jones

Many Britons work too much. It’s not just the 37.5 hours a week clocked up on average by full-time workers; it’s the unpaid overtime too. According to the TUC, workers put in 2.1bn unpaid hours last year – that’s an astonishing £33.6bn of free labour.

That overwork causes significant damage. Last year, 12.5m work days were lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The biggest single cause by a long way – in some 44% of cases – was workload. Stress can heighten the risk of all manner of health problems, from high blood pressure to strokes. Research even suggests that working long hours increases the risk of excessive drinking. And then there’s the economic cost: over £5bn a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive. No wonder the public health expert John Ashton is among those suggesting a four-day week could improve the nation’s health. […]

This is no economy-wrecking suggestion either. German and Dutch employees work less than we do but their economies are stronger than ours. It could boost productivity: the evidence suggests if you work fewer hours, you are more productive, hour for hour – and less stress means less time off work. Indeed, a recent experiment with a six-hour working day at a Swedish nursing home produced promising results: higher productivity and fewer sick days. If those productivity gains are passed on to staff, working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily entail a pay cut.

Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you
by Peter Fleming

The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recently used activity trackers to monitor 8,000 workers over the age of 45. The findings were striking. The average period of inactivity during each waking day was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.

When researchers at University College London looked at 85,000 workers, mainly middle-aged men and women, they found a correlation between overwork and cardiovascular problems, especially an irregular heart beat or atrial fibrillation, which increases the chances of a stroke five-fold.

Labour unions are increasingly raising concerns about excessive work, too, especially its impact on relationships and physical and mental health. Take the case of the IG Metall union in Germany. Last week, 15,000 workers (who manufacture car parts for firms such as Porsche) called a strike, demanding a 28-hour work week with unchanged pay and conditions. It’s not about indolence, they say, but self-protection: they don’t want to die before their time. Science is on their side: research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.

Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity. […]

Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

All this is encouraging as far as it goes. But almost all of these studies focus on the problem from a numerical point of view – the amount of time spent working each day, year-in and year-out. We need to go further and begin to look at the conditions of paid employment. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare. Someone who relishes working on their car at the weekend, for example, might find the same thing intolerable in a large factory, even for a short period. All the freedom, creativity and craft are sucked out of the activity. It becomes an externally imposed chore rather than a moment of release.

Why is this important?

Because there is a danger that merely reducing working hours will not change much, when it comes to health, if jobs are intrinsically disenfranchising. In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential. So too are jobs of a better kind, where hierarchies are less authoritarian and tasks are more varied and meaningful.

Capitalism doesn’t have a great track record for creating jobs such as these, unfortunately. More than a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a survey by YouGov. And if morale is that low, it doesn’t matter how many gym vouchers, mindfulness programmes and baskets of organic fruit employers throw at them. Even the most committed employee will feel that something is fundamentally missing. A life.

Stress and Shittiness

What causes heart disease – Part 63
by Malcolm Kendrick

To keep this simple, and stripping terminology down things down to basics, the concept I am trying to capture, and the word that I am going to use, here to describe the factor that can affect entire populations is ‘psychosocial stress’. By which I mean an environment where there is breakdown of community and support structures, often poverty, with physical threats and suchlike. A place where you would not really want to walk down the road unaccompanied.

This can be a zip code in the US, known as postcode in the UK. It can be a bigger physical area than that, such as a county, a town, or whole community – which could be split across different parts of a country. Such as native Americans living in areas that are called reservations.

On the largest scale it is fully possible for many countries to suffer from major psychosocial stress at the same time. […] Wherever you look, you can see that populations that have been exposed to significant social dislocation, and major psychosocial stressors, have extremely high rate of coronary heart disease/cardiovascular disease.

The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’
by Will Hutton

Britain and America are in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis. They are experiencing not merely a slowdown in life expectancy, which in many other rich countries is continuing to lengthen, but the start of an alarming increase in death rates across all our populations, men and women alike. We are needlessly allowing our people to die early.

In Britain, life expectancy, which increased steadily for a century, slowed dramatically between 2010 and 2016. The rate of increase dropped by 90% for women and 76% for men, to 82.8 years and 79.1 years respectively. Now, death rates among older people have so much increased over the last two years – with expectations that this will continue – that two major insurance companies, Aviva and Legal and General, are releasing hundreds of millions of pounds they had been holding as reserves to pay annuities to pay to shareholders instead. Society, once again, affecting the citadels of high finance.

Trends in the US are more serious and foretell what is likely to happen in Britain without an urgent change in course. Death rates of people in midlife(between 25 and 64) are increasing across the racial and ethnic divide. It has long been known that the mortality rates of midlife American black and Hispanic people have been worse than the non-Hispanic white population, but last week the British Medical Journal published an important study re-examining the trends for all racial groups between 1999 and 2016 .

The malaises that have plagued the black population are extending to the non-Hispanic, midlife white population. As the report states: “All cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Why? “Drug overdoses were the leading cause of increased mortality in midlife, but mortality also increased for alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).

US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.

The UK is not just suffering shit-life syndrome. We’re also suffering shit-politician syndrome.
by Richard Murphy

Will Hutton has an article in the Guardian in which he argues that the recent decline in the growth of life expectancy in the UK (and its decline in some parts) is down to what he describes as ‘shit-life syndrome’. This is the state where life is reduced to an exercise in mere survival as a result of the economic and social oppression lined up against those suffering the condition. And, as he points out, those suffering are not just those on the economic and social margins of society. In the UK, as in the US, the syndrome is spreading.

The reasons for this can be debated. I engaged in such argument in my book The Courageous State. In that book I argued that we live in a world where those with power do now, when they identify a problem, run as far as they might from it and say the market will find a solution. The market won’t do that. It is designed not to do so. Those suffering shit-life syndrome have, by default, little impact on the market. That’s one of the reasons why they are suffering the syndrome in the first place. That is why so much of current politics has turned a blind eye to this issue.

And they get away with it. That’s because the world of make belief advertising which drives the myths that underpin the media, and in turn out politics, simply pretends such a syndrome does not exist whilst at the same time perpetually reinforcing the sense of dissatisfaction that is at its core.

With Brexit, It’s the Geography, Stupid
by Dawn Foster

One of the major irritations of public discourse after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the complete poverty of analysis on the reasons behind different demographics’ voting preferences. Endless time, energy, and media attention has been afforded to squabbling over the spending of each campaign for and against continued European Union membership — and now more on the role social media played in influencing the vote — mirroring the arguments in the United States that those who voted to Leave were, like Trump voters, unduly influenced by shady political actors, with little transparency behind political ads and social media tactics.

It’s a handy distraction from the root causes in the UK: widening inequality, but also an increasingly entrenched economic system that is geographically specific, meaning your place of birth and rearing has far more influence over how limited your life is than anything within your control: work, education and life choices.

Across Britain, territorial injustice is growing: for decades, London has boomed in comparison to the rest of the country, with more and more wealth being sucked towards the southeast and other regions being starved of resources, jobs and infrastructure as a result. A lack of secure and well-remunerated work doesn’t just determine whether you can get by each month without relying on social security to make ends meet, but also all aspects of your health, and the health of your children. A recent report by researchers at Cambridge University examined the disproportionate effect of central government cuts on local authorities and services: inner city areas with high rates of poverty, and former industrial areas were hardest hit. Mia Gray, one of the authors of the Cambridge report said: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate. We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.”

Life expectancy is perhaps the starkest example. In many other rich countries, life expectancy continues to grow. In the United Kingdom it is not only stalling, but in certain regions falling. The gap between the north and south of England reveals the starkest gap in deaths among young people: in 2015, 29.3 percent more 25-34-year-olds died in the north of England than the south. For those aged 35-44, the number of deaths in the north was 50 percent higher than the south.

In areas left behind economically, such as the ex-mining towns in the Welsh valleys, the post-industrial north of England, and former seaside holiday destinations that have been abandoned as people plump for cheap European breaks, doctors informally describe the myriad tangle of health, social and economic problems besieging people as “Shit Life Syndrome”. The term, brought to public attention by the Financial Times, sounds flippant, but it attempts to tease out the cumulative impact of strict and diminished life chances, poor health worsened by economic circumstances, and the effects of low paid work and unemployment on mental health, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise, factors worsened by a lack of agency in the lives of people in the most deprived areas. Similar to “deaths of despair” in the United States, Shit Life Syndrome leads to stark upticks in avoidable deaths due to suicide, accidents, and overdoses: several former classmates who remained in the depressed Welsh city I grew up in have taken their own lives, overdosed, or died as a result of accidents caused by alcohol or drugs. Their lives prior to death were predictably unhappy, but the opportunity to turn things around simply didn’t exist. To move away, you need money and therefore a job. The only vacancies that appear pay minimum wage, and usually you’re turned away without interview.

Simply put, it’s a waste of lives on an industrial scale, but few people notice or care. One of the effects of austerity is the death of public spaces people can gather without being forced to spend money. Youth clubs no longer exist, and public health officials blame their demise on the rise in teenagers becoming involved in gangs and drug dealing in inner cities. Libraries are closing at a rate of knots, despite the government requiring all benefits claims to be submitted via computers. More and more public spaces and playgrounds are being sold off to land-hungry developers, forcing more and more people to shoulder their misery alone, depriving them of spaces and opportunities to meet people and socialise. Shame is key in perpetuating the sense that poverty is deserved, but isolation and loneliness help exacerbate the self-hatred that stops you fighting back against your circumstances.

“Shit-Life Syndrome” (Oxycontin Blues)
by Curtis Price

In narrowing drug use to a legal or public health problem, as many genuinely concerned about the legal and social consequences of addiction will argue, I believe a larger politics and political critique gets lost (This myopia is not confined to drug issues. From what I’ve seen, much of the “social justice” perspective in the professional care industry is deeply conservative; what gets argued for amounts to little more than increased funding for their own services and endless expansion of non-profits). Drug use, broadly speaking, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It is a thermometer for social misery and the more social misery, the greater the use. In other words, it’s not just a matter of the properties of the drug or the psychological states of the individual user, but also of the social context in which such actions play out.

If we accept this as a yardstick, then it’s no accident then that the loss of the 1984-1985 U.K. Miners’ Strike, with the follow-on closure of the pits and destruction of pit communities’ tight-knit ways of life, triggered widespread heroin use (2). What followed the defeat of the Miners’ Strike only telescoped into a few years the same social processes that in much of the U.S. were drawn out, more prolonged, insidious, and harder to detect. Until, that is, the mortality rates – that canary in the epidemiological coalmine -sharply rose to everyone’s shock.

US doctors have coined a phrase for the underlying condition of which drug use and alcoholism is just part: “shit-life syndrome.” As Will Hutton in the Guardian describes it,

“Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighborhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer”(3).

This accurately sums up “shit-life syndrome.” So, by all means, end locking up non-violent drug offenders and increase drug treatment options. But as worthwhile as these steps may be, they will do nothing to alter “shit-life syndrome.” “Shit-life syndrome” is just one more expression of the never-ending cruelty of capitalism, an underlying cruelty inherent in the way the system operates, that can’t be reformed out, and won’t disappear until new ways of living and social organization come into place.

The Human Kind, A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart Of Medicine
Peter Dorward
p. 155-157

It’s not like this for all kinds of illness, of course. Illness, by and large, is as solid and real as the chair I’m sitting on: and nothing I say or believe about it will change its nature. That’s what people mean when they describe an illness as ‘real’. You can see it and touch it, and if you can’t do that, then at least you can measure it. You can weigh a tumour; you can see on the screen the ragged outline of the plaque of atheroma in your coronary artery which is occluded and crushing the life out of you, and you would be mad to question the legitimacy of this condition that prompts the wiry cardiologist to feed the catheter down the long forks and bends of your clogged arterial tree in order to feed an expanding metal stent into the blocked artery and save you.

No one questions the reality and medical legitimacy of those things in the world that can be seen, felt, weighed, touched. That creates a deep bias in the patient; it creates a profound preference among us, the healers.

But a person is interactive . Minds can’t exist independently of other minds: that’s the nature of our kind. The names we have for things in the world and the way that we choose to talk about them affect how we experience them. Our minds are made of language, and grammar, intentions, emotions, perceptions and memory. We can only experience the world through the agency of our minds, and how our minds interact with others. Science is a great tool for talking about the external world: the world that is indifferent to what we think. Science doesn’t begin to touch the other, inner, social stuff. And that’s a challenge in medicine. You need other tools for that.

‘Shit-life syndrome,’ offers Becky, whose skin is so pale it looks translucent, who wears white blouses with little ruffs buttoned to the top and her blonde hair in plaits, whose voice is vicarage English and in whose mouth shit life sounds anomalous. Medicine can have this coarsening effect. ‘Shit-life syndrome provides the raw material. We doctors do all the rest.’

‘Go on…’

‘That’s all I ever seem to see in GP. People whose lives are non-specifically crap. Women single parenting too many children, doing three jobs which they hate, with kids on Ritalin, heads wrecked by smartphone and tablet parenting. Women who hate their bodies and have a new diagnosis of diabetes because they’re too fat. No wonder they want a better diagnosis! What am I meant to do?’

I like to keep this tutorial upbeat. I don’t like it to become a moan-fest, which is pointless and damaging. Yet, I don’t want to censor.

‘… Sometimes I feel like a big stone, dropped into a river of pain. I create a few eddies around me, the odd wave or ripple, but the torrent just goes on…’

‘… I see it different. It’s worse! I think half the time we actually cause the problems. Or at least we create our own little side channels in the torrent. Build dams. Deep pools of misery of our own creation!’

That’s Nadja. She’s my trainee. And I recognise something familiar in what she is saying – the echo of something that I have said to her. It’s flattering, and depressing.

‘For example, take the issuing of sick notes. They’re the worst. We have all of these people who say they’re depressed, or addicted, or stressed, who stay awake all night because they can’t sleep for worry, and sleep all day so they can’t work, and they say they’re depressed or anxious, or have backache or work-related stress, and we drug them up and sign them off, but what they’re really suffering from are the symptoms of chronic unemployment and the misery of poverty, which are the worst illnesses that there are! And every time I sign one of these sick notes, I feel another little flake chipped off my integrity. You’re asking about vectors for social illness? Sick notes! It’s like we’re … shitting in the river, and worrying about the cholera!’

Strong words. I need to speak to Nadja about her intemperate opinions…

‘At least, that’s what he keeps saying,’ says Nadja, nodding at me.

Nadja’s father was a Croatian doctor, who fled the war there. Brought up as she was, at her father’s knee, on his stories of war and torture, of driving his motorbike between Kiseljac and Sarajevo and all the villages in between with his medical bag perched on the back to do his house calls, she can never quite believe the sorts of things that pass for ‘suffering’ here. It doesn’t make Nadja a more compassionate doctor. She sips her coffee, with a smile.

Aly, the one training to be an anaesthetist-traumatologist, says, ‘We shouldn’t do it. Simple as that. It’s just not medicine. We should confine ourselves to the physical, and send the rest to a social worker, or a counsellor or a priest. No more sick notes, no more doing the dirty work of governments. If society has a problem with unemployment, that’s society’s problem, not mine. No more convincing people that they’re sick. No more prescriptions for crap drugs that don’t work. If you can’t see it or measure it, it isn’t real. We’re encouraging all this pseudo-­illness with our sick notes and our crap drugs. What’s our first duty? Do no harm! End of.’

She’ll be a great trauma doctor, no doubt about it.

* * *

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Rate And Duration of Despair
Trauma, Embodied and Extended
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Society and Dysfunction
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
To Grow Up Fast
Individualism and Isolation
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
On Conflict and Stupidity
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Morality-Punishment Link

Inequality in the Anthropocene

This post was inspired by an article on the possibility of increasing suicides because of climate change. What occurred to me is that all the social and psychological problems seen with climate change are also seen with inequality (as shown in decades of research), and to a lesser extent as seen with extreme poverty — although high poverty with low inequality isn’t necessarily problematic at all (e.g., the physically and psychologically healthy hunter-gatherers who are poor in terms of material wealth and private property).

Related to this, I noticed in one article that a study was mentioned about the chances of war increasing when detrimental weather events are combined with ethnic diversity. And that reminded me of the research that showed diversity only leads to lowered trust when combined with segregation. A major problem with climate-related refugee crises is that it increases segregation, such as refugee camps and immigrant ghettoization. That segregation will lead to further conflict and destruction of the social fabric, which in turn will promote further segregation — a vicious cycle that will be hard to pull out before the crash, especially as the environmental conditions lead to droughts, famines, and plagues.

As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.

The only defense against this will be a strong, courageous left-wing response. That would require eliminating not only the derangement of the GOP but also the corruption of the DNC by replacing both with a genuinely democratic and socialist movement. Otherwise, our society will descend into collective madness and our entire civilization will be under existential threat. There is no other option.

* * *

The Great Acceleration and the Great Divergence: Vulnerability in the Anthropocene
by Rob Nixon

Most Anthropocene scholars date the new epoch to the late-eighteenth-century beginnings of industrialization. But there is a second phase to the Anthropocene, the so-called great acceleration, beginning circa 1950: an exponential increase in human-induced changes to the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle and in ocean acidification, global trade, and consumerism, as well as the rise of international forms of governance like the World Bank and the IMF.

However, most accounts of the great acceleration fail to position it in relation to neoliberalism’s recent ascent, although most of the great acceleration has occurred during the neoliberal era. One marker of neoliberalism has been a widening chasm of inequality between the superrich and the ultrapoor: since the late 1970s, we have been living through what Timothy Noah calls “the great divergence.” Noah’s subject is the economic fracturing of America, the new American gilded age, but the great divergence has scarred most societies, from China and India to Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Australia, and Bangladesh.

My central problem with the dominant mode of Anthropocene storytelling is its failure to articulate the great acceleration to the great divergence. We need to acknowledge that the grand species narrative of the Anthropocene—this geomorphic “age of the human”—is gaining credence at a time when, in society after society, the idea of the human is breaking apart economically, as the distance between affluence and abandonment is increasing. It is time to remold the Anthropocene as a shared story about unshared resources. When we examine the geology of the human, let us also pay attention to the geopolitics of the new stratigraphy’s layered assumptions.

Neoliberalism loves watery metaphors: the trickle-down effect, global flows, how a rising tide lifts all boats. But talk of a rising tide raises other specters: the coastal poor, who will never get storm-surge barriers; Pacific Islanders in the front lines of inundation; Arctic peoples, whose livelihoods are melting away—all of them exposed to the fallout from Anthropocene histories of carbon extraction and consumption in which they played virtually no part.

We are not all in this together
by Ian Angus

So the 21st century is being defined by a combination of record-breaking inequality with record-breaking climate change. That combination is already having disastrous impacts on the majority of the world’s people. The line is not only between rich and poor, or comfort and poverty: it is a line between survival and death.

Climate change and extreme weather events are not devastating a random selection of human beings from all walks of life. There are no billionaires among the dead, no corporate executives living in shelters, no stockbrokers watching their children die of malnutrition. Overwhelmingly, the victims are poor and disadvantaged. Globally, 99 percent of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75 percent of them are women.

The pattern repeats at every scale. Globally, the South suffers far more than the North. Within the South, the very poorest countries, mostly in Africa south of the Sahara, are hit hardest. Within each country, the poorest people—women, children, and the elderly—are most likely to lose their homes and livelihoods from climate change, and most likely to die.

The same pattern occurs in the North. Despite the rich countries’ overall wealth, when hurricanes and heatwaves hit, the poorest neighborhoods are hit hardest, and within those neighborhoods the primary victims are the poorest people.

Chronic hunger, already a severe problem in much of the world, will be made worse by climate change. As Oxfam reports: “The world’s most food-insecure regions will be hit hardest of all.”

Unchecked climate change will lock the world’s poorest people in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and loss of livelihood. Children will be among the primary victims, and the effects will last for lifetimes: studies in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Niger show that being born in a drought year increases a child’s chances of being irreversibly stunted by 41 to 72 percent.

Environmental racism has left black Americans three times more likely to die from pollution
By Bartees Cox

Without a touch of irony, the EPA celebrated Black History Month by publishing a report that finds black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life. Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts.

The statistics provide evidence for what advocates call “environmental racism.” Communities of color aren’t suffering by chance, they say. Rather, these conditions are the result of decades of indifference from people in power.

Environmental racism is dangerous. Trump’s EPA doesn’t seem to care.
by P.R. Lockhart

Studies have shown that black and Hispanic children are more likely to develop asthma than their white peers, as are poor children, with research suggesting that higher levels of smog and air pollution in communities of color being a factor. A 2014 study found that people of color live in communities that have more nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that exacerbates asthma.

The EPA’s own research further supported this. Earlier this year, a paper from the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that when it comes to air pollutants that contribute to issues like heart and lung disease, black people are exposed to 1.5 times more of the pollutant than white people, while Hispanic people were exposed to about 1.2 times the amount of non-Hispanic whites. People in poverty had 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty.

Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real
by Vann R. Newkirk II

Late last week, even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump administration continued a plan to dismantle many of the institutions built to address those disproportionate risks, researchers embedded in the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study finds that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”

The study focuses on particulate matter, a group of both natural and manmade microscopic suspensions of solids and liquids in the air that serve as air pollutants. Anthropogenic particulates include automobile fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust, all of which have been linked to serious health problems. Particulate matter was named a known definite carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and it’s been named by the EPA as a contributor to several lung conditions, heart attacks, and possible premature deaths. The pollutant has been implicated in both asthma prevalence and severitylow birth weights, and high blood pressure.

As the study details, previous works have also linked disproportionate exposure to particulate matter and America’s racial geography. A 2016 study in Environment International found that long-term exposure to the pollutant is associated with racial segregation, with more highly segregated areas suffering higher levels of exposure. A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives found that overall levels of particulate matter exposure for people of color were higher than those for white people. That article also provided a breakdown of just what kinds of particulate matter counts in the exposures. It found that while differences in overall particulate matter by race were significant, differences for some key particles were immense. For example, Hispanics faced rates of chlorine exposure that are more than double those of whites. Chronic chlorine inhalation is known for degrading cardiac function.

The conclusions from scientists at the National Center for Environmental Assessment not only confirm that body of research, but advance it in a top-rate public-health journal. They find that black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. The study found that people in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty. Interestingly, it also finds that for black people, the proportion of exposure is only partly explained by the disproportionate geographic burden of polluting facilities, meaning the magnitude of emissions from individual factories appears to be higher in minority neighborhoods.

These findings join an ever-growing body of literature that has found that both polluters and pollution are often disproportionately located in communities of color. In some places, hydraulic-fracturing oil wells are more likely to be sited in those neighborhoods. Researchers have found the presence of benzene and other dangerous aromatic chemicals to be linked to race. Strong racial disparities are suspected in the prevalence of lead poisoning.

It seems that almost anywhere researchers look, there is more evidence of deep racial disparities in exposure to environmental hazards. In fact, the idea of environmental justice—or the degree to which people are treated equally and meaningfully involved in the creation of the human environment—was crystallized in the 1980s with the aid of a landmark study illustrating wide disparities in the siting of facilities for the disposal of hazardous waste. Leaders in the environmental-justice movement have posited—in places as prestigious and rigorous as United Nations publications and numerous peer-reviewed journals—that environmental racism exists as the inverse of environmental justice, when environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color.

The idea of environmental racism is, like all mentions of racism in America, controversial. Even in the age of climate change, many people still view the environment mostly as a set of forces of nature, one that cannot favor or disfavor one group or another. And even those who recognize that the human sphere of influence shapes almost every molecule of the places in which humans live, from the climate to the weather to the air they breathe, are often loathe to concede that racism is a factor. To many people, racism often connotes purposeful decisions by a master hand, and many see existing segregation as a self-sorting or poverty problem. Couldn’t the presence of landfills and factories in disproportionately black neighborhoods have more to do with the fact that black people tend to be disproportionately poor and thus live in less desirable neighborhoods?

But last week’s study throws more water on that increasingly tenuous line of thinking. While it lacks the kind of complex multivariate design that can really disentangle the exact effects of poverty and race, the finding that race has a stronger effect on exposure to pollutants than poverty indicates that something beyond just the concentration of poverty among black people and Latinos is at play. As the study’s authors write: “A focus on poverty to the exclusion of race may be insufficient to meet the needs of all burdened populations.” Their finding that the magnitude of pollution seems to be higher in communities of color than the number of polluters suggests, indicates that regulations and business decisions are strongly dependent on whether people of color are around. In other words, they might be discriminatory.

This is a remarkable finding, and not only because it could provide one more policy linkage to any number of health disparities, from heart disease to asthma rates in black children that are double those of white children. But the study also stands as an implicit rebuke to the very administration that allowed its release.

Violence: Categories & Data, Causes & Demographics

Most violent crime correlates to social problems in general. Most social problems in general correlate to economic factors such as poverty but even moreso inequality. And in a country like the US, most economic factors correlate to social disadvantage and racial oppression, from economic segregation (redlining, sundown towns, etc) to environmental racism (ghettos located in polluted urban areas, high toxicity rates among minorities, etc) — consider how areas of historically high rates of slavery at present have higher levels of poverty and inequality, impacting not just blacks but also whites living in those communities.

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

Percentages of Suffering and Death

Even accepting the data that Pinker uses, it must be noted that he isn’t including all violent deaths. Consider economic sanctions and neoliberal exploitation, vast poverty and inequality forcing people to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, covert operations to overthrow governments and destabilize regions, anthropogenic climate change with its disasters, environmental destruction and ecosystem collapse, loss of arable land and food sources, pollution and toxic dumps, etc. All of this would involve food scarcity, malnutrition, starvation, droughts, rampant disease, refugee crises, diseases related to toxicity and stress, etc; along with all kinds of other consequences to people living in desperation and squalor.

This has all been intentionally caused through governments, corporations, and other organizations seeking power and profit while externalizing costs and harm. In my lifetime, the fatalities to this large scale often slow violence and intergenerational trauma could add up to hundreds of millions or maybe billions of lives cut short. Plus, as neoliberal globalization worsens inequality, there is a direct link to higher rates of homicides, suicides, and stress-related diseases for the most impacted populations. Yet none of these deaths would be counted as violent, no matter how horrific it was for the victims. And those like Pinker adding up the numbers would never have to acknowledge this overwhelming reality of suffering. It can’t be seen in the official data on violence, as the causes are disconnected from the effects. But why should only a small part of the harm and suffering get counted as violence?

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
by Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 860-888 (see here)

Consider: Once among the most modern, Westernized nations in the Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs, interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalization, and sectarian feuding. Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and a self-declared Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring Syria spills across its borders. These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history. Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75 percent crop failure and wiped out 85 percent of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities. 90 This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends that are transforming the Middle East. 91 Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts. Iraq sits on the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas production. We tend to think of climate change and violent religious fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.” 92

A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s military aggression. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water infrastructure. 93 It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers argue that Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” was intended to establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.94

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian-backed separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering drought. 95 Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot but be key issues in the conflict. Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and parts of China. Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India. And while the world burns, the United States has been playing chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in seventy years. This is our present and future: droughts and hurricanes, refugees and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.

Donald Trump Is the First Demagogue of the Anthropocene
by Robinson Meyer

First, climate change could easily worsen the inequality that has already hollowed out the Western middle class. A recent analysis in Nature projected that the effects of climate change will reduce the average person’s income by 23 percent by the end of the century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that unmitigated global warming could cost the American economy $200 billion this century. (Some climate researchers think the EPA undercounts these estimates.)

Future consumers will not register these costs so cleanly, though—there will not be a single climate-change debit exacted on everyone’s budgets at year’s end. Instead, the costs will seep in through many sources: storm damage, higher power rates, real-estate depreciation, unreliable and expensive food. Climate change could get laundered, in other words, becoming just one more symptom of a stagnant and unequal economy. As quality of life declines, and insurance premiums rise, people could feel that they’re being robbed by an aloof elite.

They won’t even be wrong. It’s just that due to the chemistry of climate change, many members of that elite will have died 30 or 50 years prior. […]

Malin Mobjörk, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, recently described a “growing consensus” in the literature that climate change can raise the risk of violence. And the U.S. Department of Defense already considers global warming a “threat multiplier” for national security. It expects hotter temperatures and acidified oceans to destabilize governments and worsen infectious pandemics.

Indeed, climate change may already be driving mass migrations. Last year, the Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was mocked for suggesting that a climate-change-intensified drought in the Levant—the worst drought in 900 years—helped incite the Syrian Civil War, thus kickstarting the Islamic State. The evidence tentatively supports him. Since the outbreak of the conflict, some scholars have recognized that this drought pushed once-prosperous farmers into Syria’s cities. Many became unemployed and destitute, aggravating internal divisions in the run-up to the war. […]

They were not disappointed. Heatwaves, droughts, and other climate-related exogenous shocks do correlate to conflict outbreak—but only in countries primed for conflict by ethnic division. In the 30-year period, nearly a quarter of all ethnic-fueled armed conflict coincided with a climate-related calamity. By contrast, in the set of all countries, war only correlated to climatic disaster about 9 percent of the time.

“We cannot find any evidence for a generalizable trigger relationship, but we do find evidence for some risk enhancement,” Schleussner told me. In other words,  climate disaster will not cause a war, but it can influence whether one begins.

Why climate change is very bad for your health
by Geordan Dickinson Shannon

Ecosystems

We don’t live in isolation from other ecosystems. From large-scale weather events, through to the food we eat daily, right down to the minute organisms colonising our skin and digestive systems, we live and breath in co-dependency with our environment.

A change in the delicate balance of micro-organisms has the potential to lead to disastrous effects. For example, microbial proliferation – which is predicted in warmer temperatures driven by climate change – may lead to more enteric infections (caused by viruses and bacteria that enter the body through the gastrointestinal tract), such as salmonella food poisoning and increased cholera outbreaks related to flooding and warmer coastal and estuarine water.

Changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall, soil moisture and sea-level rise, caused by climate change is also affecting the transmission of dangerous insect-borne infectious diseases. These include malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, chikungunya and West Nile viruslymphatic filariasis, plague, tick-borne encephalitis, Lyme diseaserickettsioses, and schistosomiasis.

Through climate change, the pattern of human interaction will likely change and so will our interactions with disease-spreading insects, especially mosquitoes. The World Health Organisation has also stressed the impact of climate change on the reproductive, survival and bite rates of insects, as well as their geographic spread.

Climate refugees

Perhaps the most disastrous effect of climate change on human health is the emergence of large-scale forced migration from the loss of local livelihoods and weather events – something that is recognised by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. Sea-level rise, decreased crop yield, and extreme weather events will force many people from their lands and livelihoods, while refugees in vulnerable areas also face amplified conditions such as fewer food supplies and more insect-borne diseases. And those who are displaced put a significant health and economic burden on surrounding communities.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political. Around 36m people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009; a figure that is predicted to rise to more than 50m by 2050. In one worst-case scenario, as many as 200m people could become environmental refugees.

Not a level playing field

Climate change has emerged as a major driver of global health inequalities. As J. Timmons Roberts, professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University, put it:

Global warming is all about inequality, both in who will suffer most its effects and in who created the problem in the first place.

Global climate change further polarises the haves and the have-nots. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate change will hit poor countries hardest. For example, the loss of healthy life years in low-income African countries is predicted to be 500 times that in Europe. The number of people in the poorest countries most vulnerable to hunger is predicted by Oxfam International to increase by 20% in 2050. And many of the major killers affecting developing countries, such as malaria, diarrhoeal illnesses, malnutrition and dengue, are highly sensitive to climate change, which would place a further disproportionate burden on poorer nations.

Most disturbingly, countries with weaker health infrastructure – generally situated in the developing world – will be the least able to copewith the effects of climate change. The world’s poorest regions don’t yet have the technical, economic, or scientific capacity to prepare or adapt.

Predictably, those most vulnerable to climate change are not those who contribute most to it. China, the US, and the European Union combined have contributed more than half the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions in the last few centuries. By contrast, and unfairly, countries that contributed the least carbon emissions (measured in per capita emissions of carbon dioxide) include many African nations and small Pacific islands – exactly those countries which will be least prepared and most affected by climate change.

Here’s Why Climate Change Will Increase Deaths by Suicide
by Francis Vergunst, Helen Louise Berry & Massimiliano Orri

Suicide is already among the leading causes of death worldwide. For people aged 15-55 years, it is among the top five causes of death. Worldwide nearly one million people die by suicide each year — more than all deaths from war and murder combined.

Using historical temperature records from the United States and Mexico, the researchers showed that suicide rates increased by 0.7 per cent in the U.S. and by 2.1 per cent in Mexico when the average monthly temperatures rose by 1 C.

The researchers calculated that if global temperatures continue to rise at these rates, between now and 2050 there could be 9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides in the U.S. and Mexico alone. This is roughly equivalent to the number of additional suicides that follow an economic recession.

Spikes during heat waves

It has been known for a long time that suicide rates spike during heat waves. Hotter weather has been linked with higher rates of hospital admissions for self-harmsuicide and violent suicides, as well as increases in population-level psychological distress, particularly in combination with high humidity.

Another recent study, which combined the results of previous research on heat and suicide, concluded there is “a significant and positive association between temperature rises and incidence of suicide.”

Why this is remains unclear. There is a well-documented link between rising temperatures and interpersonal violence and suicide could be understood as an act of violence directed at oneself. Lisa Page, a researcher in psychology at King’s College London, notes:

“While speculative, perhaps the most promising mechanism to link suicide with high temperatures is a psychological one. High temperatures have been found to lead individuals to behave in a more disinhibited, aggressive and violent manner, which might in turn result in an increased propensity for suicidal acts.”

Hotter temperatures are taxing on the body. They cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, reduce sleep quality and disrupt people’s physical activity routines. These changes can reduce well-being and increase psychological distress.

Disease, water shortages, conflict and war

The effects of hotter temperatures on suicides are symptomatic of a much broader and more expansive problem: the impact of climate change on mental health.

Climate change will increase the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and wildfires. It will extend the range of infectious diseases such as Zika virus, malaria and Lyme disease. It will contribute to food and water shortages and fuel forced migration, conflict and war.

These events can have devastating effects on people’s health, homes and livelihoods and directly impact psychological health and well-being.

But effects are not limited to people who suffer direct losses — for example, it has been estimated that up to half of Hurricane Katrina survivors developed post-traumatic stress disorder even when they had suffered no direct physical losses.

The feelings of loss that follow catastrophic events, including a sense of loss of safety, can erode community well-being and further undermine mental health resilience

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 3-4 (see here)

[W]hen the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

PP. 119-120 (see here)

But how can something as abstract as inequality or social comparisons cause something as physical as health? Our emergency rooms are not filled with people dropping dead from acute cases of inequality. No, the pathways linking inequality to health can be traced through specific maladies, especially heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and health problems stemming from obesity. Abstract ideas that start as macroeconomic policies and social relationships somehow get expressed in the functioning of our cells.

To understand how that expression happens, we have to first realize that people from different walks of life die different kinds of deaths, in part because they live different kinds of lives. We saw in Chapter 2 that people in more unequal states and countries have poor outcomes on many health measures, including violence, infant mortality, obesity and diabetes, mental illness, and more. In Chapter 3 we learned that inequality leads people to take greater risks, and uncertain futures lead people to take an impulsive, live fast, die young approach to life. There are clear connections between the temptation to enjoy immediate pleasures versus denying oneself for the benefit of long-term health. We saw, for example, that inequality was linked to risky behaviors. In places with extreme inequality, people are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to have unsafe sex, and so on. Other research suggests that living in a high-inequality state increases people’s likelihood of smoking, eating too much, and exercising too little.

What Causes the Poor Health of the Poor?

What is the cause of unhealthy eating? Richard Florida attempts to answer that, based on new research. He makes some good points, but maybe he is missing some of the context.

Let me begin with one thing that seems correct in the analysis. He points out that food deserts are found in poor areas. Dietary health is an issue of socioeconomic class. Yet even when better food is made available, either by grocery stores opening or people moving, the habits of foods bought don’t tend to change. That isn’t surprising and not particularly insightful. If changes were to happen, they would happen across generations as they always do. It took generations to create food deserts and the habits that accompany them. So, it would take generations to reverse the conditions that created the problem in the first place.

Florida sort of agrees with this, even though he doesn’t seek to explain the original cause and hence the fundamental problem. Instead, he points to the need for better knowledge by way of educating the public. What this overlooks is that in generations past there was much better eating habits that were altered by a combined effort of government dietary recommendations and corporate advertising, that is to say an alliance of big government and big business, an alliance that did great harm to public health (from the largely unhelpful food pyramid to the continuing subsidization of corn and corn syrup). The bad eating habits poor Americans have now come from what was taught and promoted over the past century, diet info and advice that in many cases has turned out to be harmfully wrong.

Florida sees this as being more about culture, as related to knowledge. It’s those dumbfucks in rural middle America who need to be taught the wisdom of the coastal elites. It’s a liberal’s way of speaking about ‘poor culture’, a way of blaming the poor while throwing in some paternalistic technocracy. The healthy middle-to-upper classes have to teach the poor how to have healthy middle-to-upper class habits. Then all of society will be well. (Not that the conservative elite are offering anything better with their preference of maintaining oppressive conditions, just let the poor suffer and die because they deserve it.)

Florida’s solution ignores a number of factors, such as costs. When I lived under the poverty level, I bought the cheapest food available which included some frozen vegetables but lots of cheap carbs (e.g., Ramen noodles) and cheap proteins (e.g., eggs) along with cheap junk food (e.g., Saltine crackers) and cheap fast food (e.g., 2 egg and sausage biscuits for $2). Crappy food is extremely inexpensive, a motivating factor for anyone living hand-to-mouth or paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s about getting the most calories for the buck. The healthiest food tends to be the most expensive and least filling (e.g., kale). I couldn’t afford many fresh fruits and vegetables back when I was barely making ends meet, a time when I was so lacking in excess money that I was forced to skip meals on a regular basis. Even when there isn’t a drastic difference in costs, saving a few bucks when shopping adds up for the poor.

Someone like Florida is unlikely to understand this. Maybe the middle-to-upper class could use some education themselves so as to comprehend the lived reality of the poor. But no doubt more and better knowledge should be made available to everyone, no matter their class status. We have way too much ignorance in this society, sadly with much of it to be found among those making public policies and working in corporate media. So, yes, we have room for improvement on this level for all involved. I’m just not sure that is the fundamental issue, as the state of knowledge at present is a result of the state of society, which is to say it is more of a systemic than individual problem.

Anyway, some of the data in the research cited seems a bit off or misleading. Florida’s article includes a map of “Average Health Index of Store Purchases by County.” It doesn’t entirely match various other mapped data for health such as infant mortality. The Upper Midwest, for example, looks rather mixed in terms of the store purchases by county while looking great according to other health indicators. Also, the Upper Midwest has low rates of food deserts, which is supposedly what Florida was talking about. Even though there are poor rural areas in the Upper Midwest, there are also higher rates of gardening and farmers’ markets.

Also, it must be kept in mind that most people in rural states don’t actually live in rural areas, as would have been the case earlier last century. Mapping data by county is misleading because a minority of the population visually dominates the map. The indicators of health would be lower for that minority of rural county residents, even as the indicators of health are high for the entire state population mostly concentrated in specific counties. In that case, it is socioeconomic conditions combined with geographic isolation (i.e., rural poverty) that is the challenge, along with entire communities slowly dying and entire populations aging as the youth and young families escape. That is no doubt problematic, although limited to a small and rapidly shrinking demographic. The majority of Upper Midwestern lower classes are doing fairly well in their living in or around urban centers. But of course, this varies by region. No matter the data, the Deep South almost always looks bad. That is a whole other can of worms.

That set of issues is entirely ignored by Florida’s article, which is severely limiting for his analysis. Those particular Middle Americans don’t need the condescension from the coastal elites. What is missing is that poverty and inequality is also lower in places like the Upper Midwest, while being higher elsewhere such as the Deep South. Socioeconomic conditions correlates strongly with all aspects of health, physical health and mental health, just as they correlate to with all aspects of societal health (e.g., rates of violent crime).

I applaud any attempt at new understanding, but not all attempts are equal. Part of my complaint is directed toward the conservative-mindedness of much of the liberal class. There is too often a lack of concern for and lack of willingness to admit to the worst systemic problems. Let me give a quick example. Florida wrote another article, also for City Lab, in which he discusses the great crime decline and the comeback of cities. Somehow, he manages to entirely avoid the topic of lead toxicity, the single most well researched and greatest proven factor of crime decline. This kind of omission is sadly common from this kind of public intellectual. In constantly skirting around the deeper issues, it’s a failure of intellect and morality going hand in hand with a failure of insight and imagination.

To return to the original topic, I suspect that there are even deeper issues at play. Inequality is definitely important. Then again, so is segregation, distrust, and stress. Along with all of this, loss of community and social capital is immensely important. To understand why inequality matters, an analysis has to dig deeper into what inequality means. It isn’t merely an economic issue. Inequality of income and wealth is inequality of education and time, as the author notes, while it is also inequality of political power, public resources, and individual opportunities. A high inequality society causes dysfunction, especially for the poor, in a thousand different ways. Inequality is less of a cause than the outward sign of deeper problems. Superficial attempts at solutions won’t be helpful.

In response to why the poor eat less well, one commenter suggested that, “It’s literally because they have less time” and offered supporting evidence. The article linked was about data showing the poor don’t eat more fast food than do the wealthier, despite more fast food restaurants being located near the poor, which implies the wealthier are more willing or more likely to be travelling further distances in their eating fast food at the same rate. What the article also shows is that it is busy people, no matter socioeconomic class, who eat the most fast food.

That is a key point to keep in mind. In that context, another commenter responded with a disagreement and pointed to other data. The counter-claim was that the lower classes have more leisure time. I dug into that data and other data and had a different take on it. I’ll end with my response from the comments section:

A superficial perusal of cherry-picked data isn’t particularly helpful. Show me where you included commute time, childcare, eldercare, housework, house maintenance, yard work, etc. The linked data doesn’t even have a category for commute time and it doesn’t disaggregate specific categories of non-employment work according to income, occupation, or education.

Also, what is called leisure is highly subjective, such as the wealthier having greater freedom to take relaxing breaks while at work or eating a healthy meal out at a restaurant for lunch, none of which would get listed as leisure. Wealthier people have lives that are more leisurely in general, even when it doesn’t involve anything they would explicitly perceive and self-report as leisure. They are more likely to be able to choose their own work schedule, such as sleeping in later if they want (e.g., because of sickness) or leaving work early when needed (e.g., in order to bring their child to an event). They might be puttering around the house which they consider work, as the nanny takes care of the kids and the maid cleans the house. What a wealthier person considers work a poor person might consider leisure.

None of that is accounted for in the data you linked to. And it doesn’t offer strong, clear support for your conclusions. Obviously, something is getting lost in the self-reported data in how people calculate their own leisure. It shows that the poorer someone is the more they are likely to go to work at a place of employment on an average day (and apparently for some bizarre reason that includes “single jobholders only” in terms of income): 93.9% of those making $0 – $580, 90.6% of those making $581 – $920, 85.4% of those making $921 – $1,440, and 78% of those making $1,441 and higher. Imagine if they included all the lower class people working multiple jobs (the data doesn’t list any categories that combine income bracket and number of jobs).

About those formally working on an average day, to put it in context of occupation, this is: 75.5% of management, business, and financial operations, 76.9% of professional and related, 90.1% of construction and extraction, 93.2% of installation, maintenance, and repair, 91.2% of production, and 88.7% of transportation and material moving. Or break it down by education, which strongly correlates to income brackets: 85.5% of those with less than a high school diploma, 89.8% of those with high school graduates, no college, 85.4% of those with some college or associate degree, 77.2% of those with bachelor’s degree only, and 70.7% of those with advanced degree. It is even more stark separated in two other categories: 85.6% of wage and salary workers and 49.9% of self-employed workers.

No matter how you slice and dice the data, non-professionals with less education and income are precisely those who are most likely to do employment-related work on an average day. That is to say they are more likely to not be at home, the typical location of most leisure activities. It’s true the wealthier and more well educated like to describe themselves as working a lot even when at home, but it’s not clear what that might or might not mean in terms of actual activities. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable, as it is based on self-perception and self-assessment.

Besides, anyone who knows anything about social science research knows that there are a lot of stresses involved in a life of poverty, far beyond less time, although that is significant. There is of course less wealth and resources, which is a major factor. Plus, there are such things as physical stress, from lack of healthcare to high rates of lead toxicity. Living in a food desert and being busy are among the lesser worries for the working poor.

To return to the work angle, I would also add that the poor are more likely to work multiple shifts in a row, to work irregular or unpredictable schedules (being on call, split or rotating shifts, etc), to work on the black market (doing yard work for cash, bartering one’s time and services in the non-cash economy, etc), along with probably having a higher number of family members such as teens working in some capacity (paid and/or helping at home, formal and/or informal work). There is also the number of hours spent looking for work, a major factor considering the growing gig economy. Also, what about the stress and uncertainty for the increasing number of people working minimum wage (many employees at Walmart and Amazon) who make so little that they have to be on welfare just to make ends meet.

None of this is found in the data you linked. In general, it’s hard to find high quality and detailed data on this kind of thing. But there is plenty of data that indicates the complicating and confounding factors.

Survey: More Than One-Third Of Working Millennials Have A Side Job
by Renee Morad

“majority of workers taking on side gigs (68%) are making less than $50K a year.”

Millennials Significantly Outpacing Other Age Groups for Taking on Side Gigs
by Michael Erwin

“Workers of all income levels are taking on side work. Nearly 1 in 5 workers making more than $75k (18 percent) and 12 percent of those making more than $100k currently have a gig outside of their full time job. This is compared to a third of workers making below $50k (34 percent) and 34 percent earning below $35k.”

Who Counts as Employed? Informal Work, Employment Status, and Labor Market Slack
by Anat Bracha and Mary A. Burke

“Among informal participants who experienced a job loss or other economic loss during or after the Great Recession, 40 percent report engaging in informal work out of economic necessity, and 8.5 percent of all informal workers report that they would like to have a formal job. However, about 70 percent of informal work hours offer wages that are similar to or higher than the same individual’s formal wage.

“[…] informal work participation complicates the official U.S. measurement of employment status. In particular, a significant share of those who report that they are currently engaged in informal work also report separately that they performed no work for pay or profit in the previous week. In light of such potential underreporting of informal work, the BLS’s official labor force participation rate might be too low by an economically meaningful (if modest) margin, and the share of employed workers with full-time hours is also likely to be higher than is indicated by the official employment statistics.”

What Is the Informal Labor Market?
by Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria

“Survey of Informal Work Participation within the Survey of Consumer Expectations revealed that about 20 percent of non-retired adults at least 21 years old in the U.S. generated income informally in 2015.2 The share jumped to 37 percent when including those who were exclusively involved in informal renting and selling activities.

“When breaking down the results by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment categories, about 16 percent of workers employed full time participated in informal work. Not surprisingly, the highest incidence of informal work was among those who are employed part time for economic reasons, with at least 30 percent participating in informal work. Also, at least 15 percent of those who are considered not in the labor force by the BLS also participated in informal work.

“[…] Enterprising and Informal Work Activities (EIWA) survey, which revealed that 36 percent of adults in the U.S. (18 and older) worked informally in the second half of 2015.3 Of these informal workers, 56 percent self-identified as also being formally employed, and 20 percent said they worked multiple jobs (including full-time and part-time positions).

“[…] There were slightly more women than men among informal workers, though the share of women was much larger in lower income categories.

“The majority of informal workers were white, non-Hispanic (64 percent), while the share of Hispanic workers tended to be slightly higher than that of African-Americans (16 and 12 percent, respectively). The racial breakdowns were consistent across most income categories, with a higher incidence of informal work among minorities in the lowest income categories.”

Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences
by Lonnie Golden

– “By income level, the lowest income workers face the most irregular work schedules.”
– “Irregular shift work is associated with working longer weekly hours.”
– “Employees who work irregular shift times, in contrast with those with more standard, regular shift times, experience greater work-family conflict, and sometimes experience greater work stress.”
– “The association between work-family conflict and irregular shift work is particularly strong for salaried workers, even when controlling for their relatively longer work hours.”
– “With work hours controlled for, having a greater ability to set one’s work schedule (start and end times and take time off from work) is significantly associated with reduced work-family conflict.”

To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of  her slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

Alt-Facts of Employment

 

Here is a topic I return every so often. It’s the related nexus of unemployment, permanent unemployment, and underemployment along with how it relates the larger economy, the black market, inequality, opportunity, welfare, poverty, homelessness, desperation, etc. I don’t have any new thoughts, but I was looking at a lot of articles and decided to share them.

There is so much disagreement over the data, what exactly is the data and what it means or doesn’t mean. The reason for this is that there is so little useful data. I’ve always been concerned not just about what the data includes but also what it excludes… and so who is excluded and for what or whose purpose. Still, much can be ascertained from what data is available, if one is willing to consider it honestly. The number appears to be shockingly low for adults working “good jobs” who potentially could work, if full employment was available (not to mention if full opportunity and economic mobility was available). So many Americans have given up on looking for work or the kind of work and many others, for various reasons, are simply not seen in the data.

So much of human potential goes wasted. This kind of data isn’t just numbers. It’s people stuck in place or running place, too often falling through the cracks. It’s people struggling and suffering, working hard and not being counted or else wanting to get ahead but feeling blocked. These people are frustrated and ever more outraged or else resigned. Many others are simply tired and just doing what they can, what they must to get by.

The poorest of communities, in a large number of cases, have the majority of their residents unemployed and the majority of their men caught up in the legal system. The main economy in these communities it the black market of drugs, prostitution, and other basic work paid under the counter.

The problems we face are far worse than gets typically recorded in the data and reported in the media. Some of these problems have been developing for decades, such as stagnating/dropping wages and the shrinking middle class. And they are inseparable from the problems of worsening corporatism, failed governance, lost public trust, growing national debt, crumbling infrastructure, externalized costs, and much else.

These problems are real and urgent for those who are most harmed by them. Data on such things as unemployment, however it is measured, is just the tip of an iceberg that sits teetering atop the tip of a vast oceanic mountain range.

* * *

Nearly Half of Millennials Say the American Dream Is Dead. Here’s Why.
by Natalie Johnson, The Daily Signal

One in five suicides is associated with unemployment
Science Daily

The Opioid Epidemic and the Face of Long-Term Unemployment
by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Lack of jobs linked to gun violence at schools
by Megan Fellman, Futurity

Alternate Unemployment Charts
ShadoStats.com

The Invisible American
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

The Big Lie: 5.6% Unemployment
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

Gallup Is Right: The Unemployment Rate Is A Big Lie
by John Manfreda, Seeking Alpha

Only 44 Percent Of U.S. Adults Are Employed For 30 Or More Hours Per Week
by Michael Snyder, The Economic Collapse

Neither Employed, Nor Unemployed
by Bud Meyers, The Economic Populist
comment by Bud Meyers

Gallup CEO Blasts Press’s Complacency in Covering Unemployment and Underemployment
by Tom Blumer, NewsBusters

The Low Unemployment Rate Is A Momentary Calm Before The Coming Economic Storm
by Drew Hansen, Forbes

Long-term Unemployed Struggle as Economy Improves, Rutgers Study Finds
Rutgers Today

47% of Unemployed Americans Have Just Stopped Looking for Work
by Dan Kedmey, Time

US unemployed have quit looking for jobs at a ‘frightening’ level: Survey
by Jeff Cox, CNBC

In U.S., One in Four Unemployed Adults in Financial Distress
by Lydia Saad, Gallup

Nearly half of U.S. workers consider themselves underemployed, report says
bAlexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune

Despite Reports, Unemployment Is Still A Major Issue For Veterans
by Dan Goldenberg, Task & Force

Unemployment rates are higher for young people, minorities
PBS NewsHour

UIC Study Shows High Unemployment Among Black, Hispanic Youth In Chicago
CBS Chicago

Nearly half of young black men in Chicago are neither in school nor working
by Rob Wile, Fusion

One in four black, Hispanic workers is underemployed
by Andrea Orr, Economic Policy Institute

Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Job Crisis
by Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Drau, Demos

Nearly Half Of Unemployed Americans Are Under 34 Years Old: Study
Huffington Post

Fed: Nearly half of recent college grads struggling
by Irina Ivanova, Crain’s

Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States
New American Economy

ILO: Only one in four workers has a stable job
DW Akademie

New Study Predicts Nearly Half of All Work Will Be Automated
by Patrick Caughill, Futurism

* * *

A Sense of Urgency
America Is Not Great For Most Americans

Common Sense of the Common People
We’ve Been Here Before
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
Minimum Wage, Wage Suppression, Welfare State, etc
Invisible Problems of Invisible People
Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data
Worthless Non-Workers
Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?
Working Hard, But For What?
To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black
Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility
Race & Wealth Gap
Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration
End of Work as Endtimes
American Winter and Liberal Failure
Conservatives Pretending to Care About Economic Problems
Conservative Moral Order & the Lazy Unemployed
Conservatism, Murders & Suicides
Republicans: Party of Despair
Rate And Duration of Despair
Poor & Rich Better Off With Democrats
Unequal Democracy, Parties, and Class
‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland
Problems of Income Inequality

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place
Not Funny At All

Mean Bosses & Inequality
The United States of Inequality
Economic Inequality: A Book List
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good

On Being a Bachelor

My dad told me that I live like a bachelor. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that. But I suspect he really wasn’t talking about my marital status or rather lack thereof.

Partly my lifestyle is different because I’ve spent around three quarters of my life severely depressed along with some cognitive deficits (e.g., learning disability). That relates to my having dropped out of college and now have a working class job, even though I’m smart enough to do a higher-skilled job. In thinking about the bachelor lifestyle, my dad might have been talking more about class. I’m fairly sure that, if I were either a rich bachelor or a poverty-stricken bachelor, I’d be living a far different lifestyle than I do as a working class bachelor with a unionized government job. Other than my inhabiting a small apartment, the way I live is probably more similar to the average working class married couple than to bachelors as a general category.

My parents grew up in working class communities. They spent their early years in smaller houses that weren’t up to middle class standards, which is to say a bit cluttered and not pristinely clean. As my parents moved up into the world, they both sought to escape the world they grew up in. I’m not sure what it is, maybe a slight sense of shame of where they came from. I know my mom was embarrassed to bring childhood friends home because of the condition of her family’s house.

I, on the other hand, grew up middle class. My childhood house, because of my mother, was always perfectly clean. And some of the family houses from my younger years were fairly nice, such as our South Carolina home (built for a judge) which was a stately two-story brick structure with a large front porch, balcony, and walled garden. My parents have gone to great effort to become not just middle class but upper middle class, and they’ve succeeded.

For whatever reason, I haven’t exactly inherited this upward mobile aspiration of good living and class respectability, although my brothers are more middle class in their sensibilities. I dress working class and my living space would look working class, if not for the walls being covered in shelves of scholarly and literary books. I have no desire to act or appear middle class. Despite raising me middle class, my mom instilled in me a working class attitude about life and apparently I took it to heart.

Class is such a strange thing. As my dad’s comment implied, class is often spoken of indirectly. More than anything, class is an attitude. If it was important to me, I could dress middle class, act middle class, and maintain a house to a middle class standard. I’m not poor and I’m intimately familiar with what it means to be middle class (proper manners, how to set a formal table, etc). I just don’t care to try, maybe simply because of depression or whatever. I’m content being working class, as it’s a simpler and more comfortable way of living. For example, I like my Carhartt clothing because it’s practical and, on a basic level, I’m all about practical (as my mom raised me). I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a factory town. I’ve never gone hunting, much less owned a gun, and I’ve never driven a pickup truck. I just look like that kind of person.

Here is where the issue of marriage vs bachelorhood fits in. It used to be that marriage was most closely identified with working class. But that has changed. Marriage rates are now higher with the middle class or what is left of the middle class. As the economy has gotten harder, there have been fewer advantages for the working class to get married and more stress driving working class marriages apart.

In the past, it was common for a man to have a good farm, factory, railroad, or mining job. This might even have included job security and good benefits. This often paid well enough that his wife didn’t have to work, instead her staying at home taking care of the house and kids. It was the traditional American family and, for generations, it was standard for the working class. But hard economic times, along with more opportunities, caused an entire generation of working class women to look for employment to help offset costs.

The traditional family came to have less value, as people had less time to spend with family and were less economically dependent on one another. Being married has increasingly become a luxury of class privilege. For the working poor, it can be cheaper for an individual to live alone or easier to get on welfare, especially in poor communities where most potential spouses are unemployed. The incentive structure at the bottom of the economic ladder doesn’t encourage marriage, as it once did.

So, bachelorhood and bachelorettehood, along with single parenting, has become more common among the lower classes. It’s a survival strategy or simply a hard fact of life. If you’re poor with a job, you have little reason to marry a poor person without a job. And if you are a poor person without a job, there is little reason for someone with a job to marry you. As for two unemployed poor people, even if they weren’t feeling desperate and with no future prospects, marriage would have little meaning or purpose, not even offering comfort in sharing misery with another. In communities with low employment rates, marriage has become rather pointless.

Being a lower class single person has a similar stigma to being lower class single parent, just without the kids. If I were rich and someone said I had a bachelor lifestyle, they’d mean I was living in a large empty mansion or upscale penthouse, living the high life involving vacations and traveling the world, parties and dating beautiful women who presumedly wanted me for my money, not to mention a maid to clean my house. But if I were a severely poor unemployed bachelor, my lifestyle would likely involve at best living in a single bedroom eating Ramen noodles and at worst living under a bridge drinking myself to an early grave. As I’m not either of those extremes, that isn’t what my dad meant when he brought up my bachelor status. But the implication was that my lifestyle was closer to the latter than to the former.

My aspiration is to one day live under a bridge. And with the economy going as it is, my dream may eventually come true. Maybe I’ll meet a nice homeless lady to shack up with and keep me warm at night. Oh, to dream…

On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem

There is an article, On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem, that has been getting some attention. It’s written by someone calling himself Forsetti and co-written with his Justice. The tagline for the blog is, “this is Truth”. Well, I like truth. But that is where ends my agreement with the author.

The piece is too simplistic, narrow-minded, uninformed, and cynical. I sometimes think liberals like this are projecting a bit about their own limited groupthink. In the words of one comment I saw in a discussion, “So it’s a tumblr post saying religious people are dumb. OK.”

There is only one reason that this is worth responding to. The author does express a fairly typical view among liberals. I understand the attraction to righteous judgment and, in the past, I might have felt more sympathy toward the anger expressed. But I’m now growing impatient with this kind of attitude that is driving a wedge between Americans who should be seeking common cause.

The very basis of the argument is blatantly false. The world is more complex than is allowed for by an us vs them mentality.

As many have pointed out, there is nothing specifically Republican and conservative about rural areas and states. Many of these places were Democratic and strongly union in the past. Also, there used to be a strong movement of rural socialism, cooperatism, and communitarianism. Plus, mining states like West Virginia once were breeding grounds for radical left-wing politics like communism, Marxism, and syndicalism.

Quite a few states in flyover country, in particular the Upper Midwest, still are largely Democratic. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton won many rural areas and rural states. And, after the nomination, many of those rural voters chose Obama and helped elect him to office. Obama didn’t just win all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. He also won the Midwestern states along with Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. He almost exactly repeated these results in 2012, minus Indiana and North Carolina. The difference for 2016 is that Clinton lost almost the entire Midwest, a region of flyover country that has been key for Democrats.

In recent elections, Democratic candidates win the presidency when they win the Midwest and lose the presidency when they lose the Midwest. The only Democratic candidate in the past half century who didn’t follow this pattern was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who won with the support of Southern states.

I would point out that we really don’t know how most Americans would have voted this past presidential election because nearly half of Americans didn’t vote. If you live in a state that you think you’re candidate can’t win, you likely won’t vote at all. That is the problem with our winner take all system, where the winner takes every state in its entirety. This leads to Democrats losing presidential elections all the time, despite supposedly winning the popular vote, although to be fair it is impossible to determine the popular vote when not voting at all is so popular.

Population density and lack thereof is important. A person’s vote is worth more in a low density state than in a high density state, because if you’re surrounded by a vast concentrated population your vote has less ability to influence who becomes the victor. But the high density states aren’t entirely where you’d think they’d be.

Both Texas and California aren’t in the top ten of high density states. Rather, along with Florida, all the top ten most population dense states are found in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. In the top twenty, a quarter are found in the Midwest. Only Iowa and Minnesota are particularly low density for the Midwest.

Let me give some specific responses to the piece. Forsetti wrote that,

“The real problem isn’t east coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because the don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”

Well, it’s a fact that East Coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. Or rather, it’s a fact that research has shown the elites are disconnected from most of the population in general. The political elites are disconnected even from their own constituents. This is true for political elites from the coasts and from flyover country, because political elites tend to associate with other political elites along with elites in general.

That is only problematic if you support democracy. But if you don’t care about democracy, then everything is working just fine. Rural America doesn’t have much influence on politics. Even in rural states, most of the voters are concentrated in urban areas. It’s the cities more than anything that determine which candidate wins any given state, rural or otherwise.

“I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past thirty years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.”

First off, not all rural states are the same. Many farm and natural resources states with strong economies were largely untouched by the Great Recession. The housing market here in Iowa never took as much of a hit. Unemployment and poverty rates also have remained fairly low here. Maybe that is why Iowa has tended to vote Democratic in recent decades. Neighboring Minnesota has only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three of the last twenty-one elections, the only state to never have gone to Reagan. Iowa and Minnesota are as rural as they come and, as I pointed out, the most low density states in the Midwest (respectively ranked 36 and 31 in the country).

This author probably comes from the South. The rural South isn’t like rural anywhere else in the country. It is related to why working class whites everywhere outside of the South have tended to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. It is also related to the fact that, even in rural states, most working class whites live in urban areas. Also, keep in mind that many places considered rural today were considered urban in the past, until so much of the population left. My dad grew up in a thriving small town with multiple factories, but it was out in a rural area surrounded by farmland. Many small towns like that used to exist. The people left behind didn’t necessarily choose to be rural. It’s just the economy around them collapsed, with small businesses being closed, small factories disappearing, small farms being bought up by big ag, and small town downtowns slowly dying.

Many of those people understand just fine. They purposely didn’t vote for Clinton because she was the neoliberal candidate and they voted for Trump because he was the anti-neoliberal candidate. Trump promised to stop neoliberal trade agreements and to build infrastructure. They may have low education rates, but they aren’t utterly stupid. They are able to put two and two together.

“In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”

That is more of a Southern thing. In Iowa, for example, rural areas are largely Catholic along with Lutheran and Methodist. You don’t find many Baptists and other Evangelicals around here. Religion is more of a private issue in much of the Midwest. There is no mass longing for theocracy or the Second Coming.

Look at religiosity rates. Most of the Midwest is average, about evenly split between those who are highly religious and not. Some Midwestern states rate lower than average. Minnesota, with the 15th lowest rate, is lower than California (#17). And Wisconsin, with the 6th lowest rate, is lower than New York (#9).

Besides Utah, none of the most highly religious states are found outside of the broad South. And many of those religious Southern states are coastal and have big cities. The coastal elite in the South are as clueless as the coast elite elsewhere.

“I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.”

I’ve found the exact same thing with well educated liberals. It seems to be common to humans in general. It’s why I’ve given up on the Democratic Party. Self-questioning and looking at contrary info doesn’t seem to be a talent of partisan Democrats. Nor is it a talent of the liberal class in general, as the world they live in is rather insular.

“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood wearing, cross burning, lynching racists (though some are.) I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white.”

Are we to assume the Clintons and other Democrats don’t think they are superior white people when they use racist dog whistle politics, promote racist tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, and kill large numbers of brown people in other countries? Is racism fine, no matter how many are harmed, as long as it is unstated and veiled?

“For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God.”

Once again, that depends on what part of the country you’re talking about. Many rural Americans, especially Midwesterners, have been supportive of education. In high school graduate rankings, Wyoming gets 1st place, rural Iowa ties for 3rd place with rural Alaska, Montana is #7, and Utah ties Hawaii for #8, North Dakota is #11, South Dakota is #12, Nebraska and Wisconsin tie for #13, and Kansas ties Washington for #17.

Consider Minnesota again. They are ranked 2nd in the country for high school graduates, #10 for bachelor degrees, and #17 for advanced degrees. That is quite the accomplishment for rural flyover country. Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Methinks the author living on the coast doesn’t understand much about the rest of the country.

“Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.”

There is no evidence that, outside of the South, that rural states were more supportive of supply-side economics than the rest of the country. And even in the South, voting for Republicans probably has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic issues. Besides, this past election, it was the Clinton New Democrats who represented and defended the Reagan Revolution of neoliberal corporatism.

“They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.”

In the Midwest, you hear less of such complaints. Farm states are more nuanced in their opinions about government, both local and national. It isn’t a coincidence that most major farm states are in the Midwest. The South doesn’t have as much farming as it used. The agricultural sector in states like Kentucky has largely disappeared. When I traveled through Kentucky, there were many collapsing old barns and fields slowly turning back into forest with some housing and old shacks mixed in between.

The reason I was visiting Kentucky was to see where my mother’s family used to live generations ago. Many Southerners left rural states like Kentucky to head up to the industrial Midwest, as did my family. Or else to move into one of the nearby metropolises such as Lexington. For those who remained in rural Kentucky, I doubt the Farm Bill is helping many of them.

“When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.”

Actually, most of them have relocated. The rural areas are depleted of population.

Many of those remaining there are the old, disabled, under-educated, low IQ, mentally ill, and generally struggling; plus, family members who stayed back to take care of aging parents and other independents, along with families that simply didn’t have the resources to move. Anyone who was in a position to leave has already left. And few young people and young families have any desire to move back to those kinds of places. It’s been a slow rural drain for more than a century now. We are just finally experiencing the death throes of rural America, quite literally as much of the rural population further ages and dies off.

It is heartless to judge these people. If they had the ability and opportunities to leave, they would have long ago. But even many who left for urban areas have simply faced problems of poverty and unemployment in their new location. If you were in their position, you’d also likely be in a state of bitter despair, frustration, and outrage. These people have literally been left behind, abandoned to die in obscurity. Besides, that is their home, maybe the home of their family for generations. Family and community is even more important when you’re poor.

What it is hard to understand is that it is immensely harder to be poor in a rural area than in an urban area. There are few public services available for rural residents. They might have to travel hours (an entire day trip back and forth) to get to the nearest government office, public health center, mental health services, food bank, etc. That is assuming they even have a reliable working vehicle to travel anywhere. There is no public transportation out in rural areas. They are lucky to have a convenience store and bar nearby. And if they are really fortunate, there might be a Walmart within an hour’s distance.

When most of the population left, most of the money, community centers, schools, churches, and social capital disappeared. There isn’t even much sense of basic safety. You want to know why they cling to their guns. It’s a desperate place to live, surrounded by some of the most impoverished and hopeless people in the country. The most thriving economy is probably illegal drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods. The violence and homicide rates are higher in rural areas than even the big cities. And if you feel threatened or have an emergency, it could be too late by the time the county sheriff arrives.

Yet many rural residents remember from their childhoods that these were great places to live with thriving communities and prosperous economies. They know full well what has been lost. And they are correct that coastal elites don’t care about them, even if they had the slightest understanding about their lives. They have every right to be angry. They’d have to either be crazy or saints to not be angry. Still, they probably don’t think much about it most of the time, as they’re too preoccupied with trying to get by.

“They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.”

That claim has little to do with reality. Most of the non-coastal states, even moreso in the Midwest (even Illinois with all of the “welfare queens”), give more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. Also, many of the farm and natural resource states have large state GDPs that contribute immensely to the national GDP. Iowa gets ton of federal benefits but more than easily offsets that with federal taxes and general support to the economy.

The US economy was built on and has been largely maintained through farm and natural resource states. Even some of the natural resource states like Montana that receive more federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes only do so because the federal government funds projects there that benefit big biz. And so essentially it is a form of corporate subsidization that has little to do with the state itself as those are national and transnational corporations operating there. Sometimes the subsidies are more direct, such as the Koch brothers getting millions of state and federal dollars in Montana.

Ignoring the problem of corporate subsidies, the main economic divide of takers vs makers isn’t rural vs urban but South vs North. The South has a disproportionate part of the poor population in the country. And it is the single most populous region in the country.

“They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.”

You can travel all over most of America and most often feel perfectly welcome. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere I’ve traveled, not even in the rural South. I’m surprised how many friendly people there are in the world when you act friendly to them.

About businesses, I have never seen such a pattern. The rural towns around here are more welcoming to businesses than this liberal city I live in. There is a crony capitalism and corporatism in this liberal town where local business owners tend to shut out anyone new from developing here. All major projects that are allowed by the City Council and given preferential treatment (e.g., TIFs) are those by local business owners. Otherwise, having a building permit denied isn’t unusual. And the liberals here aren’t shy about voicing their hatred of certain businesses, such as keeping a Walmart from being built in town.

I’ve never heard of any rural areas and small towns refusing to allow factories and businesses to be built. Most of them would be glad to see employment return. In the town my dad grew up in, the factories and stores didn’t disappear because local residents wanted them to disappear. The economy simply shifted elsewhere.

“Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their Representatives and Senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.”

Some rural state governments are Republican and some are Democratic. The pattern of party control seems to have more to do with regional culture, political traditions, and the kind of economy. Over time, though, there are changes in how rural state residents vote. Where the two parties tend to win has shifted vastly over the past century, including an entire political realignment. Just looking at the past 50 years doesn’t show a consistent pattern, except for in strong Blue states like Minnesota and the strong Red South.

“All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.”

The problem is many Democrats haven’t done those things. The Clinton New Democrats made the party into a wing of the neoliberal corporatist hegemony. Hillary Clinton was against raising the minimum wage before she said she was for it, but she no doubt was lying about changing her mind as she obviously doesn’t care about the working poor. The Democrats have done little for unions this past half century and betrayed them almost every chance they got.

Tell me again who campaigned on infrastructure spending… oh yeah, that was Donald Trump. Who has been one of the strongest supporters of dirty energy? That would be Hillary Clinton. And which president created a healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ that was designed to primarily benefit healthcare insurance companies, even though the majority of Americans wanted either single payer or public option that the president refused to put on the table? Barack Obama, of course.

This self-identified ‘coastal elite’ is calling rural Americans stupid and self-destructive when it’s obvious he is as clueless, ignorant, and bigoted as they come. This kind of rant is the opposite of helpful. But it is a useful example of why the Democrats have lost so much support.

Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.

 

Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.

On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc

Someone by the name C. Atkins responded to a comment of mine. It’s from the lengthy comments section of a worthy article, I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump by Jonna Ivin (STIR Journal).

He was disagreeing with me and I disagree with him, but he was courteous and seemed sincere. I wanted to respond fully to him, not an easy task because I needed to gather the info to make my case. The main problem was that he was speculating based on his own biases. He took his speculations as being obviously true according to his experience. Even though he offered two links, he pointed to no specific evidence. Speculation isn’t necessary, since there is a ton of good data out there, some of which can be found below. It’s an extremely complicated topic demanding a thorough analysis. I’ll try to cover the main points at hand.

To start off he wrote that, “Actually, the negative effects of SSI, the lack of incentive to get off it (most recipients are long-term recipients) and the need for reform have been fairly well documented in recent studies and articles.” Well, actually, that isn’t true, as far as I can tell, although I’d welcome evidence to the contrary. To supposedly back up his claim, he offered an article from The Boston Globe (A legacy of unintended side effects by Patricia Wen), but nowhere in the article does the author discuss anything about most recipients being long-term recipients. All the data I’ve seen, including what I offer below, agrees that most welfare recipients are temporary.

He then offers a personal observation in saying, “Anecdotally, I have lived in an impoverished rural area, and most families I knew and worked with relied on SSI as a permanent source of income for the whole family. Instead of providing financial planning services or anything that could help families get out of poverty, the government cut whole communities monthly checks.” My main response is anecdotal evidence is mostly meaningless. As he lives in an impoverished rural area, his experience doesn’t apply to most Americans, including most poor Americans and most welfare recipients. Rural people in general and poor rural people specifically are a small and shrinking part of the population. Disproportionately, they are those who were too old, disabled, uneducated, or whatever to move elsewhere to find work when good jobs left the area (e.g., closing of mines, factories, and such)—the people left behind, both by their fellow citizens and by the economy.

Let me pull out a couple of things from Patricia Wen’s article. Here is a central point made by the author: “A Globe investigation has found that this Supplemental Security Income program — created by Congress primarily to aid indigent children with severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and blindness — now largely serves children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. It has also created, for many needy parents, a financial motive to seek prescriptions for powerful drugs for their children.” There has been an increase in the diagnosis of many psychiatric and neurocognitive conditions. No one knows to what degree it’s an actual increase in incidents or simply greater diagnosis. There are environmental factors that have been proven to contribute to such things: social stress, economic problems, growing inequality, parasite load, environmental toxins, etc. Take lead toxicity as a key example—the rates are highest in poor communities and they are positively correlated to numerous problems: lowered IQ, learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, self-control issues, autism, asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc (obesity is an interesting, if non-intuitive, example—as one way the body protects itself from toxins is by storing them in fat cells; plus, the heavy metal toxicity itself causes metabolic disorders). Besides lead, there is other heavy metal toxins such as mercury with its own diverse set of problems. Plus, there is a vast increase of diverse chemicals that humans are exposed to and, because toxic dumps are mostly located in poor communities, those most exposed are the poor.

There has been little research done on the majority of these chemicals, much less what effects they have when combined. Still, there has been some useful research that offers damning conclusions: “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.” That is limited to just deaths, not lost income from sickness and disability, not the costs of increased need for healthcare, not all the other problems that follow when high rates of pollution-related diseases and death hit entire communities.

To continue with the article, Wen writes that, “In New England, the numbers are even higher — 63 percent of children qualify for SSI based on such mental disabilities. That is the highest percentage for any region in the country. And here and across the nation, the SSI trend line is up, with children under 5 the fastest-growing group. Once diagnosed, these children often bring in close to half their family’s income.” That caught my attention because regional differences are a useful way of looking at variations in populations. Many differences are seen from one region to another, such as personality traits, for reasons not entirely understood. This might relate to the regional disparities in certain environmental factors, such as New England having higher rates of toxoplasmosis, from the feline-spread parasite toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasmosis can severely alter neurological functioning with a quite interesting array of effects. As Americans have increasingly kept cats in their homes, the rates of toxoplasmosis have increased. One might predict certain kinds of disabilities, specifically mental disabilities, would increase at the same time.

I would point out one important detail. Such things as lead toxicity and toxoplasmosis harm the young most of all. When the brain and nervous system is developing, these environmental factors can play havoc with normal development, leaving behind permanent damage, some of which can be measured but not all. Research has found that, for every drop in IQ point, there is a large amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. That doesn’t even include other costs such as for healthcare and personal struggle and suffering. The point being that we should expect to see these problems primarily in children, but of course they will be carried over into adulthood.

C. Atkins added a second comment with another personal observation: “Again, anecdotally, many people were on SSI for reasons entirely preventable by diet (diabetes, etc.). And yet, the government doesn’t limit SNAP purchases to foods that won’t slowly kill you. The government doesn’t support education about healthy diet, or programs that seek to make healthy food more accessible. In rural areas, people have traded kitchen gardens for free potato chips and soda (they’re cheaper than vegetables – I get it). People were starving before, but now we have a crisis of obesity-related diseases killing people. Which is worse? (I wish I knew, statistically speaking).” Again, anecdotal is what it is and nothing more. It might be true for the particular community he lives in, although his perception of his own community could be severely skewed by the people he knows or chooses to focus upon. All I can say is that I know of no data that supports his claims. For example, welfare recipients don’t eat any less healthy than the rest of the population. That isn’t necessarily saying much, as the average American doesn’t eat the healthiest diet, but the point being that welfare doesn’t particularly alter people’s eating habits. It is true that many welfare recipients live in food deserts which makes eating healthy more difficult. That is also true of many poor people who aren’t welfare recipients. It simply sucks being poor for many reasons because life is made a thousand times more difficult. Having to drive long distances or spend long periods of time on public transportation looking for stores that sell healthy food does not incentivize healthy eating habits, not that this has anything to do with welfare.

Along with that comment, C. Atkins included a link to another article. It’s an NPR piece by Chana Joffe-Walt, Unfit For Work. That is a much better article, but maybe I’m being biased since it favors the conclusion of my original comment. There is a lot more going on than is apparent from a casual look. Even those on welfare in poor communities generally don’t have the perspective to understand the larger context of their situation. I give Joffe-Walt great credit in willing to challenge her preconceptions and talk to people to figure out what is going on. One lady she talked to had back problems, a common disability for poor people who spend their lives doing physical labor. It’s not easy growing old while poor. The lady explained that she was on disability because she couldn’t stand for long periods of time and the only jobs available to her were those that required the very thing she was unable to do. Joffe-Walt was surprised by this because, in her professional class world, sitting jobs were the norm. From the transcript, she explains:

“At first, I thought Ethel’s dream job was to be the lady at Social Security, because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But no. After a confusing back and forth, it turned out Ethel wanted this woman’s job because she gets to sit. That’s it. And when I asked her, OK, but why that lady? Why not any other job where you get to sit? Ethel said she could not think of a single other job where you get to sit all day. She said she’d never seen one.

“I brushed this off in the moment. I was getting in my car. It was getting late. And also, it just did not seem possible to me that there would be a place in America today where someone could go her whole working life without any exposure to jobs where you get to sit, until she applied for disability and saw a woman who gets to sit all day. There had to be an office or storefront in town where Ethel would have seen a job that’s not physical.

“And I started sort of casually looking. At McDonald’s, they’re all standing. There’s a truck mechanic, no. A fish plant, definitely no. I looked at the jobs listings in Greensboro– occupational therapist, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, truck driver heavy lifting, KFC, registered nurse, McDonald’s. I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

“It is that gap between the world I live in and Ethel’s world that’s a big part of why the disability program has been growing so rapidly. A gap that prevents someone from even imagining the working world I live in, where there are jobs where you can work and have a sore back, or, in her husband Joseph’s case, damaged nerves in his hands.”

Like Joffe-Walt, this is something few of us ever think about. It brings me back to my grandfather who worked in the same factory most of his life. He had almost no education and wasn’t particularly smart, but he got a good job at a time when none of that mattered. With on-the-job training, he worked his way up to a floor supervisor position. The thing is that is all he knew how to do. If he had become disabled, such as a back injury, he simply would have been out of work with no prospects of finding a new job, despite his having lived in a fairly large city. There just aren’t many sitting jobs for people who spent their lives doing physical labor. And in areas where poverty is most concentrated, there just aren’t many sitting jobs at all. Chana Joffe-walt continues with this line of thought:

“Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability.

“This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles.

“The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people. This is happening so often in so many parts of the country, this shift from work to disability programs, that I have actually been reporting on it for years, and I didn’t even know it.”

This is why so many people remain clueless about how bad it has gotten for so many. The permanently unemployed also aren’t added to the unemployment rate. The government, since Reagan, has been hiding the data from the public. That is the time period when the economy was beginning its decades-long descent for most Americans, such as with wages continually stagnating for the average worker and dropping for lower income workers since 1974, this trend still having yet to stop. So, even for those lucky enough to be employed, times have been getting tougher for quite a while now. Even many professionals with college degrees are struggling. It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to live below the poverty line, especially preschool teachers, one of the most important jobs in any society.

As David Autor explained (from the same transcript), “Well, that’s kind of an ugly secret of the American labor market, that part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low until recently is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program. They’re on the disability insurance program. And they don’t show up in the labor force statistics. And so it artificially reduces the unemployment rate that we observe.”

Welfare is not only hiding how bad our economy is and has been for a long time. It also props up the economy. Without welfare, there would be poverty so severe and desperate that it would destabilize the entire society. Many of the lost jobs are never coming back and, as automation and computerization further takes hold, even more jobs will be lost. This is particularly true for the kinds of jobs that once helped the poor live decent lives and to move up into the middle class. The consequence of this is that socioeconomic mobility has decreased and the middle class shrunk. Recent generations of Americans, beginning with Generation X, are doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

There are many secondary effects to all of this. It’s not just economic problems. Increased stress has proven deleterious effects on individual health (physical and mental), on marriages and family life, and on communities. This has been exacerbated because at the same time the War on Drugs and mass incarceration has decimated entire populations. Some communities not only have a majority of their residents unemployed, since factories and mines closed down, but also a majority of their male residents caught up in the legal system and for those people it makes finding a job even harder. The sad part is a large reason they get caught up in the legal system is because, lacking employment opportunities in the legal market, they are looking to make money on the black market which is the place of last employment. It’s unsurprising that when you take away people’s gainful employment and cut welfare, ever larger numbers of people will become stressed and desperate. For the poor who are employed, many of them end up working multiple jobs, leaving little time left over for spending time with spouses and children, for shopping for healthy food and cooking meals, etc.

Will live in a severely dysfunctional society that is getting ever more dysfunctional as time goes on. These problems are so vastly beyond what individuals can deal with. The poor are struggling just to get by on a daily basis. Even if they magically found the time and money to seek education and training, the economy is so bad right now that even many with education and training are struggling to find good work or to find work at all. If you’re an older worker who loses their job, few companies want to hire you. You’re just fucked and our heartless society cares little about what becomes of you. Throw some mental health and physical health issues on top of that and you are even more fucked. Then your only hope left is to get disability pay so that you won’t spend the last years of your life sleeping on someone’s couch or, worse still, homeless.

* * *

Relevant articles:

Who’s on Welfare? 9 Shocking Stats About Public Assistance
By Megan Elliott

About 39% of children received welfare benefits during an average month in 2012. Roughly 17% of adults between 18 and 64 received benefits and 12.6% of people over age 65 did as well. Those under 18 also received larger average monthly benefits than adults between 18 and 64 ($447/month vs. $393/month).

Your Assumptions About Welfare Recipients Are Wrong
By Bryce Covert

In reality, many of these benefits that families rely on are paltry and, worse, have recently shrunk. The value of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare, have fallen so that their purchasing power is less than what it was in 1996 for the vast majority of recipients. A family of three that relies solely on TANF won’t be able to make market rent for a two-bedroom apartment and will live at just 50 percent of the poverty line, or $9,765 a year. Food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were reduced in November to an average of less than $1.40 a meal and more cuts are likely on their way after Congress agrees to a new farm bill. Housing assistance from the Section 8 rental voucher program got hammered by sequestration and local authorities had to rescind vouchers from those who had gotten off waiting lists, freeze the lists, and reduce the amount of rent each voucher would cover.

Get a Job? Most Welfare Recipients Already Have One
By Eric Morath

It’s poor-paying jobs, not unemployment, that strains the welfare system.

That’s one key finding from a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that showed the majority of households receiving government assistance are headed by a working adult.

The study found that 56% of federal and state dollars spent between 2009 and 2011 on welfare programs — including Medicaid, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit — flowed to working families and individuals with jobs. In some industries, about half the workforce relies on welfare.

“When companies pay too little for workers to provide for their families, workers rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the university’s Center for Labor Research and Education and one of the report’s authors.

Most people on welfare use it temporarily
By Emily Badger

This new data follows participation from 2009 to 2012. And it reveals, across those four years, that the vast majority of people receiving welfare — about 63 percent — participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for cumulatively less than 12 months. Less than 10 percent were enrolled in the program for most of that time. Similarly, about a third of people using food stamps and Medicaid were what the Census would consider “short-term program participants.” And the same is true of about a quarter of people getting housing assistance.

This means that sizable shares of people moved out of these programs within a year of needing them (or that they needed them for stretches that amounted to less than a year over a four-year period). And this snapshot reflects a particularly rough stretch in the economy at the end of the recession.

At any given month in 2012, just 1 percent of the U.S. population was relying, for example, on welfare, the program that’s drawn particular scrutiny of late.

Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households
By Arloc Sherman, Robert Greenstein, and Kathy Ruffing

Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percentof the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

A small number of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) programs also provide substantial benefits to individuals, but the lack of full funding for some of these programs means they do not reach all eligible recipients. Indeed, in some cases — such as in low-income rental assistance programs — the vast majority of people who are eligible receive nobenefits because of program funding limits.[4] If we broaden the universe of programs examined to include the principal discretionary programs that provide benefits — low-income housing programs, the WIC nutrition program for low-income women and young children, and low-income energy assistance — the result is essentially unchanged. Some 90 percent of the benefit dollars still go to the elderly, the disabled, and working households.

This figure also changes little if we tweak the definition of a “working household” or of who is “disabled.” This analysis defines a working household as one in which an individual works at least 1,000 hours in a year; raising the threshold to 1,500 hours makes little difference. This analysis defines a disabled person as one who receives Social Security disability benefits or the disability component of the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) or who qualifies for Medicare on the basis of disability; modifying the definition to include disabled people who are not in one of these categories also makes little difference.

Moreover, if we look only at entitlement programs that are targeted to people with low incomes, the percentage of benefit dollars going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households remains high. Five of every six benefit dollars in these programs — 83 percent — go to such people.

If anything, these figures understate the percentage of the benefits that generally go to people who are elderly, disabled, or members of working households. As noted, these data are for fiscal year 2010, a year when the unemployment rate averaged 9.6 percent and an unusually large number of Americans were in economic distress. In fiscal year 2007, the share of entitlement benefits going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households was a bit higher.

6 SNAP (FOOD STAMP) MYTHS
From Coalition Against Hunger

Myth #1: People who get SNAP don’t work.

FACT: The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children—more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.”

What’s more, many SNAP participants aren’t physically able to work. About 20 percent of SNAP participants are elderly or have a disability, according to the USDA. […]

Myth #3: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.

FACT: “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SNAP fraud has actually been cut by three-quarters over the past 15 years, and the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than 3 percent. The introduction of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards has dramatically reduced consumer fraud. According to the USDA, the small amount of fraud that continues is usually on the part of retailers, not consumers. […]

Myth #6: SNAP leads to unhealthy eating habits and obesity.

FACT: National studies show no significant link, positive or negative, between food stamps and healthy eating. Nor do they demonstrate a relationship between food stamps and weight gain.

The Myth of ‘Out of Control’ Disability Benefits
By Chad Stone

True, the disability insurance rolls have grown in recent decades, but most of that reflects well-understood demographic factors that have increased the number of insured workers, especially in the crucial 50 to 64 age group where risk of disability peaks. These factors include: overall population growth; the aging of baby boomers; the rise in the share of women in the labor force; and the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age from 65 to 66.

Properly measured, the share of insured workers receiving disability insurance benefits has risen much more modestly than the raw number of beneficiaries

New Government Study Debunks Social Security Myths
From Citizens Disability

A government study issued in April 2016 revealed that the vast majority of people denied their Social Security Disability benefits do not return to work. In a comprehensive study conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, only 27 percent of claimants who were denied ended up returning to work.

Social Security Disability Insurance is for those who have worked throughout their lives and paid into the system. If you have to stop working, in most cases you can collect Social Security Disability Insurance as long as your disability begins within five years of when you stopped working. This new study shows that, despite what some people may believe, the vast majority of people applying for disability genuinely cannot work.

If only 27 percent of people applying for disability return to work when they are denied, it is pretty clear that they honestly cannot work. Many people believe that many disability applicants are just trying to “fool the system.” This new study proves that people who genuinely cannot work are applying for disability.

If the myths of Social Security Disability fraud were right, we could expect to see considerably larger numbers of people going back to work once they are denied and need to support themselves. Instead, these number show that most people genuinely cannot return to work, and need the benefits that they paid into for so many years of their working lives.

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Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

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Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems