Matt Bruenig Starter Kit

After several years of regularly reading the work of Matt Bruenig, I found myself returning to a few particular posts of his that seemed to spell out the core ideas of his writing on poverty, its causes, and its possible solutions. They’re some of his more helpful posts as they address many common arguments about what to do about poverty in America. I decided to publish them here for those new to Bruenig’s writing or for regular readers to have on hand as an easy reference. I hope you find these posts as helpful as I have in thinking about and organizing for a more just society.

What is poverty and who are the poor?

  1. Poverty Has One Dimension — Poverty is a one-dimensional thing concerning income and efforts to describe it as multi-dimensional traffic in trendy faux-profundity and faux-nuance that needlessly complicates what is fundamentally a very simple topic.
  2. One-Third Of Americans Are In Or Near Poverty — For example, the supplemental poverty data that was released last week showed 15.5% of people (49 million people in total) to be below the poverty line. This is a small enough group that you could maybe cast them off as especially bad or inferior or whatever. But sitting just above the poverty line is another 53 million people who aren’t in poverty but are near it. That is to say, 32.5% of Americans are below 150% of the poverty line, a total of 102 million people (the same figure under the official poverty metric is 24.3%).
  3. The Vulnerable Poor — Together [Children, the elderly, the disabled, students, caretakers, and the temporarily unemployed] … make up 82.8% of the officially poor.
  4. White High School Dropouts Have More Wealth Than Black And Hispanic College Graduates — As you can see, white families are much wealthier than black and hispanic families at every education level. More than that, all white families, even those at the lowest education level, have a higher median wealth than all black and hispanic families, even those at the highest education level.
  5. Poor, Non-Working Black and Latino Men Are Nearly Non-Existent— Really let that soak in for a minute: at least 26 out of every 27 poor people in this country are not “inner city” men suffering from a culture of non-work.

How is poverty created and maintained?

  1. Two theories of poverty — Poverty replicates itself in very predictable structural ways. Since the problem is structural, the solution must be structural as well.
  2. What Causes Poverty — There is a problem in this entire debate that nobody ever seems to grapple with, and that is: what exactly is meant by asking what “causes” poverty? What exactly is being communicated when someone says X, whether that’s declining morals or family values or whatever else, causes poverty? This might seem like a tedious question, but it’s actually the most crucial question in the debate.
  3. Distributive Institutions Are to Blame for Income Inequality, Not Power Couples — The distribution of income in society is a function of two things: distributive institutions and everything else. By distributive institutions, I am referring mainly to the laws that pertain to the distribution of resources in a society. Distributive institutions include such things as bankruptcy law, corporate law, securities law, property law, contract law, tax law, benefits law, and so on. Put another way, distributive institutions are the distribution-specific subset of the “rules of the game” that structure economic activity in society.

Why Popular Solutions to Poverty Don’t Work

  1. Why Education Does Not Fix Poverty — If the poverty rates for each educational bin remained the same, then the upward redistribution of adults from the lower bins to the higher bins would have led to lower overall poverty. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the poverty rate for each educational bin went up over this time and overall poverty didn’t decline at all. In fact it went up.
  2. Promoting Marriage Has Failed and Is Unnecessary to Cut Poverty — Typically, what people focus on with marriage arguments is children. And the Brookings/AEI report is no exception in this regard. Despite their pretension of exhaustively reviewing the evidence regarding how you might cut child poverty, they somehow missed the part where other countries do so very effectively, despite having similar rates of single motherhood and unwed births as we do.
  3. The Problem With Work-Focused Poverty Initiatives — On its face, there is nothing logically problematic about this formulation. The argument is simply a work-specific permutation of the broader point that if poor people had more money, they’d be less poor. The problems come in when we actually try to apply this observation to reality and determine how many poor people can realistically work more.
  4. College Isn’t the Answer to Inequality — That’s right: you are better off being born rich and not going to college then being born poor and getting a degree. The college education fix is not sufficient to fix our social mobility problems.

What to do about poverty

  1. The Actual Way to Beat Poverty— Poverty is a lack of disposable income, not a lack of market income. Increasing market incomes can increase disposable incomes. But increasing non-market incomes can also increase disposable incomes. Yet, if you throw out “how do we fight poverty?” in a group of pundits, to a person, they start yammering about ways to increase market incomes.
  2. A Child Allowance Last Year Would Have Cut Child Poverty In Half, Again — Using the 2012 poverty data, I previously found that replacing the child tax credit with a $300/mo child allowance would cut child poverty in half and overall poverty by one-quarter. Using the 2013 poverty data, I find basically the same thing. When you adjust the $300 for inflation, it becomes $304.39 in 2013 dollars. When you add that income to each family, you get the following: the child poverty rate declines from 16.5% to 8.3% and the child poverty amount declines from 12.2 million to 6.2 million; the overall poverty rate declines from 15.5% to 12%, and the overall poverty amount declines from 48.7 million to 37.7 million.
  3. Child Allowance Would Be Huge Boon to Working Families, Especially Black and Latino Families — The child benefit reduces overall poverty by 22.9%, White poverty by 16.7%, Black poverty by 25%, and Latino poverty by 31%.
  4. Social Security Pulled 22 Million Out of Poverty in 2012 — While it is true that some programs are not well designed, it is undeniably true that the government pulls huge numbers of people out of poverty by sending them so-called “hand-outs.” The obvious case in point is the Social Security program, which is the most successful anti-poverty program in the history of the country.
  5. How Much Money Would It Take to Eliminate U.S. Poverty? — It might be helpful to put the $175.3 billion magic number in perspective. In 2012, this number was just 1/4th of the $700 billion the federal government spent on the military. When you start hunting through the submerged spending we do through the tax code, it takes you no time to find enough tax expenditures geared toward the affluent to get to that number as well.