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History’s Greatest Monster for Caring About American Workers and the Concept of Relative Poverty



Above: Lee County, Arkansas

I have to go back to the terrible Vox community response to Paul Theroux’s op-ed on deindustrialization and American workers one more time. That’s because David Dayen reached out Theroux to have a conversation about the response. Theroux went into the issue of relative poverty in that conversation.

Theroux provided a more impressionistic version of Bruenig’s argument, informed by his experience living among the poor all over the world, a project that goes back to his work in Malawi in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

“People aren’t aware of how desperate life is on a cold day in Mississippi with no heat,” Theroux said, arguing that the experience of being poor, beyond gross domestic product, is relative. Here he drew on the work of Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics just this week, who pioneered studies into comparing poverty across different economies.

“Angus Deaton said you cannot determine poverty by income,” Theroux said. “You can visit a village in Africa made of mud huts and think how desperate it all is. But in that community, in that climate, a mud hut may be preferable. A thatched roof may be preferable to a tin roof. Just because they’re earning a dollar a day, they’re not unrelated to someone in Mississippi.”

Right. I think this gets at a major problem with the Vox crew’s ideological obsession around data. Yes, the raw numbers show that workers in Zimbabwe are poorer than they are in Mississippi. And that’s true. So that allows Annie Lowrey to tell off a poor woman in Mississippi in grotesquely brusque ways. But it by no means tells the whole story. Relative poverty matters a ton too because when poor people see wealthier people around them, it leads to all sorts of social problems on top of just poverty. Angela Garcia’s excellent book on how this plays out in northern New Mexico is really valuable on this. In that area, you have long-time indigenous and Hispano populations who have been displaced by whites since the late 19th century. Every time they look at the mountains, they literally see the land that once sustained their ancestors and now they have no rights to use in traditional ways. Moreover, the growing wealth of whites in Santa Fe and in Los Alamos makes their relative poverty all the more clear. This leads to some of the highest rates of heroin use, suicide, crime, and other terrible social indicators in the country. What is frustrating is that Annie Lowrey, Dylan Matthews, Matt Yglesias, etc., fully recognize that those are terrible social outcomes but they fail to see that they are caused by some of the precise policies that they support around economic dislocation of American workers through globalization. Those workers in Mississippi feel terrible about their lives because they know what it used to be and they know how other Americans live. That kind of relative poverty has to be taken seriously. And it usually is not, at least not by the new generation of Broder-esque media in Washington.

I was also curious about this claim about literacy rates in Lee County, Arkansas:

Theroux described large regions of the south as the equivalent of deserts, without access to hospitals, decent schools, economic opportunities, or even basic financial services and nutrition. The illiteracy rate in Lee County, Arkansas, he said, was 25 percent, an astonishing number for the developed world. And these poor southerners have not cultivated subsistence skills, he said, to the extent of those in African villages, who through the centuries have managed to make their lives more viable. Lots of the people Theroux profiled in Deep South “talked about how they used to eat squirrel stew, or smother-fried squirrel. But they’re not doing it anymore.”

And I don’t know if it is actually 25 percent, but it is very, very bad.Those people need help too. That includes jobs.

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