Inequality in the United States: What's Been Happening?

Some Book Reviews

Don't get your hopes up - this is not the definitive article. It's actually a series of book reviews that have been cobbled together. In sifting through these works, I have been selective, if not arbitrary in what I will discuss. And I must warn you that not all these works are hot-off-the-press. They were lying around and I just got a hankering to read them in whole or part during the past month.


John Iceland's Poverty in America: A Handbook (Berkeley: University of California Press: 2003) does a fine job in acquainting the first time reader with the basic facts regarding: early American views of poverty, methods of measuring poverty, characteristics of the poverty population, causes of poverty, why poverty remains high, and poverty policy issues. A few findings:

  • The U.S. stands out relative to its wealthy peers as a country with a uniquely high rate of poverty.
  • The majority of the poor do not stay poor for long. However, many families cycle in-and-out, while some families and individuals get stuck in poverty's clutches.
  • Declines in poverty have been stalled since the 1970s, although some progress was made during the Clinton full employment years.
  • Increasing inequality has decreased the impact that economic growth has in inducing falls in the rate of poverty.
  • Poverty rates vary a lot from state-to-state.
  • The less educated make up a vast proportion of poverty's rolls. Single-parent female-headed households are much likelier to be snared. Changes in family structure among African Americans accounted for being poor more than it did for other ethnic groups.
  • Welfare reform in the U.S. has reduced dependency, but not poverty much.
  • Drawing on an original study, Iceland found that the rate of economic growth was a larger influence on poverty rates in the U.S. than changing family structure.
  • Productivity needs to be high and its gains must be more broadly shared if further progress is to be made.

For more than three decades, anti-poverty wonks have utilized many editions of the book authored by the late Sar Levitan, Programs in Aid to the Poor. Economists Garth Mangum, Stephen Mangum, and Andrew Sum have continued to produce this book, but in a two-volume format.

The first book, The Persistence of Poverty in the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press: 2003), examines in detail today's key poverty facts in a series of short, clear chapters - the rediscovery of poverty, a demographic profile, changing geography, the causes, approaches to and consequences to redefining poverty, and the potential for the War on Poverty to be won in the US. The second volume provides an excellent overview of all the relevant Federal programs.

I will address only the persistent poverty volume: The authors contend that the U.S. has only waged a skirmish and not a full-scale campaign to end poverty. What are the results to date?

On the negative side, the income of today's poor tends to fall further below the poverty threshold than in the past. So, although the numbers of poor have dropped, the "poverty gap" has grown. If one just handed out money to get them above the poverty line, three to four times the money needed in the 1960s would be required now.

The poverty rate in non-metro areas is higher than in metropolitan areas. Close-in suburbs are seeing their poverty rates rise as well.

Their recipes for winning this struggle are: a full employment economy, an increase in the employability of the poor (that is, stronger work skills - both cognitive and social, and serious investments in early childhood development).

Women and Children First, Not Last

The bestseller, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is the Least Valued, is not a "poverty book." But it possesses great relevance to the subject. It makes the case that the analysis of the institutions and forces of change that hinder greater gender equity also threaten mothers with downward mobility in today's fast changing global economy.

The book addresses the inequalities in law and culture that exploit women, sacrifice their income, and so forth. More precisely, in this society, Ann Crittenden contends that "women have been liberated, but not mothers." The author's work was published in paperback by Owl Books: in 2002. It covers the causes of continued inequities in a rich historical depth, and in excellent prose.

Here is her some options within her action agenda:

  1. Give every parent the right to a year's paid leave
  2. Shorten the workweek
  3. Equal pay and benefits for equal part-time work
  4. Prohibit parental discrimination at work
  5. Universal pre-school for the three and four year olds
  6. Stop taxing mothers more than everyone else
  7. Equalize social security for spouses
  8. Add unpaid household labor to GNP

This work documents the subtle links between how mothers are treated and landing in poverty. It also packages its anti-poverty prescriptions within a broader mainstream women's rights "platform".

Sharon Hays book, Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform (Oxford: 2003), tells the inside story about the results of ending welfare as we know it. This is a book that goes into the homes, the government offices, and the workplaces where women are trying to escape poverty and dependency. One reviewer says the author "punctures myths on all sides," as it argues that there has to be a better way for women previously on welfare to combine work with raising a family and making enough to get by decently.

Indeed, welfare reform should be leading to lasting escapes from poverty, and not confining many women to membership among the working poor - stressed out, without career prospects, and with too little time to nurture one's children.

Economic Development and Poverty

The Geography of American Poverty: Is There a Need for Place-based Policies, written by Mark Partridge and Dan Rickman, persuasively argues the case that placed-based efforts should not be replaced by people-based programs (training, EITC, etc.). Most mainstream economists believe that if employment prospects are lousy in your town, you should just move. The authors cover the literature in a well-organized and scholarly fashion.

Their major findings and proposals include:

  • Economic development has modest impacts on poverty in general, but important effects on central cities and remote rural areas.
  • Programs must target the neediest. Trickle down growth only goes so far. Moreover, without such a focus, probably most of the jobs fostered by economic development would go to commuters and new residents, not the need locals.
  • Geographically speaking, high poverty and unemployment rates can persist for a quite long time. Many places look about the same today as they did in the 1950s.
  • The writers outline a promising job creation and wage subsidy program.
  • They support first source hiring programs.
  • Person-based policies are needed as well - such as training and work supports like childhood assistance.
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