Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: 3 Books on Poverty

I'm still experimenting with doing these, my reading ran a bit ahead of my writing this week.  So, I'll catch up with three short reviews.

First of is Wealth and Welfare States by Garfinkel, Rainwater, and Smeeding. It provided a good overview of the welfare state in comparative perspective.  There's a lot of data here, what will surprise some readers is that it counts education spending as a form of welfare.  This has become increasingly standard in this sort of study, it's really hard to think of good reasons why to treat it separately from more traditional welfare spending.

A few other interesting notes on the book.  First of all, it describes the US welfare state spending as unusually V shaped, both the poor and the rich get unusual amounts of redistribution.  This is largely through treating handouts like the mortgage interest deduction as a form of income subsidy, in the final analysis, there's no defensible reason not to treat it the same way as something like section 8.  They also review more recent work on social spending and growth, recent studies find social spending positively correlated with growth at existing spending levels in the developed world, while there's eventually a trade off between social spending and equality and growth, it hasn't been hit yet by any rich nation.

I should also mention that they add in mandated corporate spending in some parts of the book as welfare state policies.  This would include things like spending on health benefits in the US.  After all, if it's the government instituting these policies, there's no good reason to exclude them from calculations of total spending.  This is separated out and traditional calculations presented alongside.  There's also a good overview of the history of welfare state policies.  Also, since so many seem to have problems believing this, the welfare state grew up right alongside capitalism and the more capitalist a country got, the bigger it got.  I don't think this is accidental.

Definitely worth reading.

The second book is Charles Murray's  Losing Ground.  This book is the biggy in convincing people that welfare spending actually hurts poor people.  Reading it myself, I found it quite forced, and in parts peculiar.  The first thing that struck me is that all his trends try to use the 50s and early 60s as a baseline.  As we all know, the US had a number of unusual advantages during this time, we shouldn't have expected progress to continue on these lines.  It certainly shouldn't have stopped because of a small increase in social spending.  Also, he pins a lot of causation on programs that only impacted small numbers of people, it's hard to see how small changes in AFDC benefits could have impacted black men that much, it would seem more sensible to focus on the people actually receiving benefits.  I won't go into detail on the bizarre thought experiment.  The big problem with this book is that he seems to be using how he wants people to behave as a baseline, rather than how they actually do behave.  I don't really think they were acting any more like he wanted them to before 1965 than they were after, which makes the whole book seem fishy to me.  He has said elsewhere that he draws much of his inspiration from how people seemed to get along just fine in villages he worked in overseas.  The problem with this is that those villages never really change much, they're a dead end.  They don't survive capitalism.  But this is the whole problem with the kind of political program being pushed here.  It doesn't really seem to understand the market or how it impacts society.  There's a pretty clear causality between greater reliance on markets and the erosion of traditional bonds that make village life work.  This has been demonstrated many times.  Blaming government for this doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  Rather government responds after this erosion with social programs, not the other way around.  Imagining that capitalism can co-exist with the kind of interdependence found in a village is just wishful thinking.  These societies run on variations of clientelism, which is anathema to a market economy which relies on one-off interactions between strangers.  They're just not compatible.

Rethinking Social Policy by Christopher Jencks was an excellent, if dated, book.  It's a compilation of book reviews and a chapter of original research.  It covers affirmative action; the safety net; heredity, inequality, and crime; urban ghettos; the American underclass; and reforming welfare.  There's a wealth of excellent data here, Jencks often expresses his dislike of ideology and his preference for reliance on data.  Each chapter is excellent, it was the chapters on the safety net and welfare I focused on most however.  The chapter on the safety net was a review of Murray's book, he exposed the flaws in logic as well as data that went into it.  What I found particularly convincing was the break out of the groups that had actually received social spending and the impact on them, it was far different from Murray's contentions.  Jencks' take on Murray's thought experiment was also excellent, the original scenario was plain absurd.  It's still worth a read, though enough has changed that more up to date works would probably be more valuable.  If you don't have Jstor access however, I can't recommend any at this time.

[There is also a somewhat testy exchange between Jencks and Murray available at the New York Review of Books, if you're a subscriber, the entire essay is there as well]

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