The Poor and the Not Poor

October 15, 2017

No worries. Among the 25 OECD countries, Americans have historically had the lowest percentage of their financial assets in cash and savings deposits. After the financial crisis, we became the second lowest, just ahead of Chile. The percentage for the most recent available year (2015) was 13.5%.

In the heady optimism of the dot-com boom in 1999-2000, Americans had less than 10% of their assets in cash and savings. In the long downturn from 2000 – 2003, Americans bumped up their percentage in safe assets to almost 13%. As the economy recovered, that need for safety declined slightly but not to the levels of the 1990s. The financial crisis in 2008 caused Americans to reach for safety. Safe assets rose to 14.3% of total financial assets and we have still not recovered the level of confidence we once had.

You can click on this OECD link to see a comparison of current percentages. On the bottom right below the chart you can drag the year slider and look at some historical data.

Below the chart on the left is a category labeled “Perspectives.” Select “Total” to see total financial assets, which does not include home equity. Americans have the second highest total, just below Switzerland.

On the other hand, the U.S. has a comparatively high poverty rate of 17.5% using the OECD standard,  a simple measure that an economist would use.The poverty threshold is half the median income.

The U.S. publishes a poverty rate that is several percent lower because it uses a complex definition first set in 1963 when families spent an estimated 1/3 of their income on food. The complexity of the definition hints that politicians had a hand in crafting the definition but it is attributed to one person in the Social Security Administration, who based her standard on a combination of foods that the Department of Agriculture thought would meet minimum nutritional needs. The history of this standard and its many revisions is an interesting read.

The threshold is set at three times the cost of this 1960s era minimum food diet. Efficiencies in food production over the past 50 years have dramatically lowered food costs for U.S. families. In 1978, the BLS estimated that the average family spent only 18% of their income on food. In 2014, it was a bit more than 14% (BLS).

Using food costs as the basis for measuring poverty has enabled politicians in this country to claim success in lowering poverty over the past half century. In 1978, the calculation of the U.S. poverty threshold produced one that was slightly more than the OECD standard. Today, the U.S. threshold is 16% less than the OECD standard.

Let’s look at a family of four making $28K in 2016. They were above the official U.S. poverty threshold of $24,300 for a family of four. By the OECD definition, that American family was below half of the median $59K in income and would be counted as poor.

Housing costs are higher in urban areas, where half of the U.S. population lives. That family of four living in Chicago might pay $15000 per year for a 2 BR apartment in Chicago. Further south in the same state, Springfield, IL, they might pay $11,000. That $4000 difference in housing cost is not calculated into the poverty rate that the U.S. publishes. In effect, poverty is undercounted in urban areas and overcounted in rural areas.

The simplicity of the OECD standard better captures poverty among both urban and rural low-income families because it is based on median income. So why doesn’t the U.S. adopt this much clearer standard? We can turn to the last sentence of the previous paragraph for a clue. Politicians in rural areas want a standard that overcounts poverty in their districts. A higher headcount of poverty equals more subsidies for their constituents. When this standard was set, rural areas in the southern states were primarily Democratic and Democrats dominated the Congress under a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. Those politicians wanted the adoption of a food based standard that overcounted those voters.

Today, most rural areas are predominantly Republican and the standard works to the advantage of Republicans and the disadvantage of Democrats. As a rule of thumb, whenever we see excessive complexity in rule-making, there’s usually a very sound political reason for that obfuscation. Former President John Adams lamented this unfortunate characteristic of lawmaking in the crafting of the Constitution itself.

The intentional lack of clarity in lawmaking ensures that any nation’s population will be at odds with each other. A small and smart part of the population makes money from conflict and confusion. People argue on Facebook; Facebook makes money. Trump did what? There’s a video. Got to see that, right? Click bam boom, Google makes money by placing some ads next to the video.  Controversy is profitable. Politics as carnival show.

Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, publishes both the fringe right author Ann Coulter, and the way out on the left author and MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow. Worried that the liberals are taking over the country? Frightened that the conservatives will destroy the very institutions that have made America the greatest nation on earth?  Crown has something for you.

On the other hand, the record low volatility of the stock and bond markets in the past year have made it difficult for financial firms who depend on controversy to make a good profit.  Active fund managers have struggled to outperform their benchmark indexes.  The volume of derivatives and other products that insure against volatility have fallen.  People are not worried enough.  That’s the problem.  We need to worry about not being worried.

And those poor families?  If we lower the poverty threshold even more, we won’t have to worry about those poor people as much.

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