Yes, poor people have televisions

Televisions, DVD players and mobile phones have become so cheap that even poor third world families can own them. In Foreign Policy, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write:

In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.

In the Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote: "Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio." Rather than spending all their money on necessities, the English poor were alleviating the drabness and monotony of low income life by spending money on things that brought a little fun, style or excitement. So as Orwell observed: "in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased."

Banerjee and Duflo agree with Orwell. Village life is dreary and things like television make life more enjoyable. But the policy wonks at the Heritage Foundation are convinced that in the United States, televisions are incompatible with true poverty. In an attempt to rubbish the US Census Bureau’s definition of poverty they reveal:

The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there are children, especially boys, the family has a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.

Not only that, but the statistics show that most poor households also have a refrigerator, oven and stove — not to mention a microwave oven. But as Melissa Boteach and Donna Cooper point out, "it takes much more than a few appliances to support a family." There’s also the cost of things like housing. And in the United States, that’s not cheap if you’re earning close to miniumum wage.

Considering how affordable they now are, the idea that refrigerators or ovens are luxuries seems a little silly. As Matt Yglesias writes:

Back in the late 1920s, a refrigerator would be worth a lot more than eight days’ worth of food. And a microwave wouldn’t exist at all. But in the modern day, these appliances don’t represent meaningful levels of accumulated wealth. What’s more, they’re not luxuries. They’re actually thrifty things to own. If a single mom raising three kids sold her fridge, she’s be making a very imprudent call from a strictly financial point of view. Buying food at the grocery store and saving it thanks to the miracles of modern refrigeration is sound household budgeting. Given the dynamics of a modern economy, it would be pretty irresponsible for a poor person not to own basic household appliances.

But according Heritage, the widespread adoption of household appliances by low income Americans shows that anti-poverty activists and the liberal media are running a shameless propaganda campaign.

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Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

There’s also the cost of things like housing. And in the United States, that’s not cheap if you’re earning close to miniumum wage.

It’s a shitload cheaper than it is in Australia.

Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

I mean, even your graphic spells it out pretty clearly:

$1700 for two and half month’s rent for a house big enough for 4?

$677 per month. You’d be lucky to rent a place for a fortnight in Australia for that kind of money.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
10 years ago

Well obviously the high price of housing in Australia means there is no poverty in the US. Why did no one notice this inescapable fact before?

Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

But according Heritage, the widespread adoption of household appliances by low income Americans shows that anti-poverty activists and the liberal media are running a shameless propaganda campaign.

I believe the point they are making is that if you have a car, a place to live, a refrigerator with food in it and a TV, you aren’t doing it particularly tough and there isn’t really much justification for the government to give you any more money.

Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

Well obviously the high price of housing in Australia means there is no poverty in the US. Why did no one notice this inescapable fact before?

There is relative poverty, as there will always be unless the government mandates everyone earns the same wage. But I find it hard to accept that someone who owns a car, and has enough money to rent a house, pay their utility bills and buy food is really struggling to the point where the government should intervene.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

Ah yes, this is the same Newt Gringrich who in his glory days advocated the replacement of all financial support for sole parents (most of whom in the US are, of course, “those people” – you know who I mean) with orphanages. A charming man.

Of course TVs and DVDs are by far the cheapest form of entertainment going – that is, in fact, exactly why Budget Standards approaches (google it) to measuring poverty generally include them. Not that I’m an advocate of Budget Standards approaches – apart from the very real technical and methodological problems, they too easily lend themselves to wilful misinterpretation (see above).

And Yobbo, Don is perfectly correct to point out that cars, refrigerators and phones are both big money savers for some people. But more broadly, you should read Adam Smith and his example of the “linen shirt” (a necessity for even the poor of his day, but not a timeless necessity for subsistence) to see why poverty is only ever meaningful as a relative rather than absolute measure.

hc
hc
10 years ago

I was surprised last year in China to see impoverished migrant workers and very poor laborers with mobile phones. They were cheap for me but not for people on very low wages. My guess is that they pay for themselves in a society where life among the poor is a struggle. You can keep in touch with others at lower cost than not having one and this helps you to survive.

Gavin R. Putland
10 years ago

But… but… if America’s poor don’t have TV sets any more, how will they be induced to vote for conservative candidates?!

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

This year there was a doco on the ABC or SBS showing poor Africans using mobile phones as the basis for their banking system and thus increasing trade opportunities.

But, irrespective of whether it is now a necessity (and its not), surely a mobile phone was never a “privilege”, just a useful thing that started off being expensive.

I’m surprised Hillbilly skeleton has not come to complain about this post.

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
10 years ago

Haven’t you people seen The Wire? Burners are essential in the modern urban crime environment. ;)

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

It’s on past my bedtime! Though apparently you can’t organise a good looting without a blackberry.

Rhys
Rhys
10 years ago

It’s class resentment by another name. For decades the middle class has been told by advertisers that if they have a house and car and a range of standard appliances and goods, that they have somehow “made it”. And to not have those things makes one a loser. If the poor have those things too, then what makes the middle class special? The class resentment from the slightly more comfortable on display on blogs and twitter over the London Riots is amazing to behold. How dare they have mobile phones that carriers give away for free with a cheap monthly plan!

Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

I’m fairly sure the resent the London rioters because they are burning and looting the city, not because they have mobile phones.

rossco
rossco
10 years ago

I found this a useful perspective on being poor in the US
http://aep.typepad.com/american_empire_project/2011/08/nickel-and-dimed-2011-version-.html#more

How the poor survive at all is a miracle to me, but good luck to them if they manage to cling on to a few basic necessities for survival.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Rhys, WTF? I’ll bet those nasty middle class types just want to feel safe at home and not have their city trashed, but who knows, maybe you’re correct and their snobblishness and superiority is being snatched away among the burning buildings.

There’s a really easy explanation for people doing bad things, they’re bad. I think the same applies to why people say dumb things.

“How the poor survive at all is a miracle to me,”

One of my colleagues recently expressed disbelief that people on lower incomes could survive at all, let along buy houses and stuff. I thought it strange that people would question the evidence before their eyes. Obviously the poor surviving is not a miracle because they don’t happen. So, if you’re struggling to understand it then maybe you’re a bit dim.

rog
rog
10 years ago

In Africa mobile phones were found to be highly cost effective, one village could share a phone and it could be usd for medical emergencies or establishing market prices and demand for goods.

It’s a nonsense to say that because someone has whitegoods or electrical items they are not subject to and experiencing poverty.

Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
10 years ago

@16:

There’s a really easy explanation for people doing bad things, they’re bad. I think the same applies to why people say dumb things.

An explanation that very conveniently pre-empts any other explanation and spares us the effort of examining other possible explanations.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Paul, we can ask why they are bad, but from our moral perspective they are. Think of if your son/daughter was doing it.

Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
10 years ago

…we can ask why they are bad, but from our moral perspective they are.

Try putting aside “our moral perspective” and looking at it this way: these are people doing bad things. This opens the way to two much more productive questions: “Why are they acting badly? What can we do to change this?”

Think of if your son/daughter was doing it.

Not a parent, so I have no experience in the area. But if I were, I doubt that I would begin dealing with the problem by assuming that doing something bad makes my kid a bad one who will inevitably turn into a bad adult. That’s pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yobbo
Yobbo
10 years ago

It’s a nonsense to say that because someone has whitegoods or electrical items they are not subject to and experiencing poverty.

You can define poverty however way you want, so obviously nobody can argue with this statement.

However, it’s not nonsense at all to say that if someone has whitegoods, a car, and a place to live, then they are not in any need of further government handouts. Because really that’s what this poverty debate comes down to in the end, an excuse to raise taxes.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

“not nonsense at all to say that if someone has whitegoods, a car, and a place to live, then they are not in any need of further government handouts”

What’s the advantage of owning such things if you can’t even afford be able to pay for food, utility bills, medical bills, etc. etc.? Even if you insisted they sell everything but the “absolute” necessities, it wouldn’t help them particularly.

And why would anyone want an ‘excuse to raise taxes’. The ultimate goal of support to a country’s poorest citizens is to get them to a point of self-sufficiency – i.e., to the point they can pay taxes – so yes, the ultimate upside may well be increased tax revenue, but you seem to see that as a bad thing?

rog
rog
10 years ago

It’s not nonsense at all to say that if someone has whitegoods, a car, and a place to live, then they are not in any need of further government handouts

Sounds like you are in favour of govt handing out whitegoods, a car, and a place to live?

No, I think that what you are saying is that someone with whitegoods, a car, and a place to live can live without government interference. But where do you draw the line with government handouts? Do roads, power, phone, health, education, law, defense and other activities qualify as “handouts?”

David Wilkie
David Wilkie
10 years ago

Yeah I find this analysis a bit feeble also. Yes its an important angle to take. But its just one angle. My grandparents were hopelessly poor and were the survivors of the “Spanish Flu” that killed more people than the World War that spread that same virus. And some of my forbears prior had survived the potato famine. But my grandparents generation could easily go into business, buy a house, support a wife that did not need to work, with 2-6 kids, and their hard work would always pay dividends … should they have chosen to work hard.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

“This opens the way to two much more productive questions: “Why are they acting badly? What can we do to change this?””

Easy, punish them. The idea that you shouldn’t steal and destroy stuff that other people own has been around for a pretty long time, so what’s not to get about it. They used to shoot looters didn’t they?

The important part about being a grown up is that you are responsible for your own actions. I heard some dick on RN this morning moaning about how these kids had been dispossessed. Which is to get it exactly wrong. The stupid thugs were busy dispossessing others.

The causes of the problem are likely to be some or all of the following:

1 the police have turned into pussies;

2 young men are prone to be very stupid;

3 some young men are especially stupid;

4 some idiots have been feeding their sense of entitlement and justifying their tendencies to violence (especially easy to stir up in young men).

What your seeing is not due to an insufficient welfare state.

David Wilkie
David Wilkie
10 years ago

They aren’t acting wrongly. They are acting in accordance with the new ethics of the stimulus package and the banking bailout heist. Those ethics are that if poor people are hurting due to public sector parasitism DOUBLE DOWN on the parasitism citing Keynes. And should you be already rich and can steal 12 trillion dollars when you have manifestly failed: Do it. Do it. Just do it.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Better get to foil hat on Bird, the UN black helicopters will be buzzing around.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

Except these people (I assume we’re now talking about the UK rioters) have been committing crimes in areas with plenty of CCTV cameras around, so they must have realised there’s a decent likelihood of getting caught and punished. If you think purely reactive measures are sufficient, then I’d ask you to explain that to the people who had their homes and shops destroyed.

Further, I don’t know how anybody can claim with any certainty to what degree the *size* of the welfare state is the key problem, but it seems pretty clear that behaviour that largely seems to involve looting reasonably-priced consumer items wouldn’t make any sense unless the people involved felt they had sufficiently little hope of ever being able to provide well enough for themselves to purchase them legitimately. I certainly don’t accept that the state should have the *sole* responsibility of providing such opportunity to these communities, but realistically it is the single largest body capable of doing so, and hence it’s reasonable to conclude that the degree to which government policy and rhetoric has failed to achieve that goal is a fairly major part of the problem.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

I’d also say Pedro I’m quite willing to accept an under-resourced police force is a big part of the problem, but by your own definition all government spending is welfare of one form or another, so I’m wondering if you’re not slightly contradicting yourself.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

You saw the masks Wiz? Do you think people steal things because they think they can’t afford one? I expect they do it because they are completely wicked (hardcore crims), or very stupid and think they will get away with it.

Perhaps the problem is that the State represents that it can provide opportunity, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, and then people get shitty when it can’t. I don’t know how the State is supposed to provide opportunity through the expansion of state activities as there seems a limit beyond which the expansion of the state is positively disasterous. It seems to me that those limits were being discovered before the 1980s.

I can’t recall every seeing anything to suggest that a welfare expansion leads to less crime, but there have been apparent successes for law and order programs. New York perhaps, but there are always lots of things going on when crime is substantially reduced.

Recently I saw an article by someone who studies this stuff and said that recessions and depressions don’t immediately lead to substantial increases in crime. I’ll try and find it.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

“Do you think people steal things because they think they can’t afford one?”

Sounds like a pretty reasonable hypothesis to me, for at least a significant percentage of petty crimes. But I don’t have data to back it up.

What’s your “lots of evidence” that the state can’t provide opportunity? Are you suggesting the correlation between social mobility and the inclusiveness/effectiveness of the welfare state (i.e., high in Scandanavian countries, relatively low in US/UK) is meaningless?

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

I reckon that a few turks and such might wonder where all that scandinavian social mobility went to. I believe that culture explains social mobility. The US has had lots and the UK relatively less. People there still think that they’re better than the likes of me because of their ancestry.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

I wrote a long reply but it disappeared sorry…why do you think Turks (or other lower-skilled non-EU immigriants) coming to Scandnavian nations are less likely to move up the socio-economic ladder than native-born citizens? Or are you referring to their restrictive immigration policies?

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Wiz, are you seriously suggesting that these people were stealing stuff because they couldn’t afford it?

I think they were stealing it because they were presented with the opportunity and because they have a mentality that they are entitled to what they can get.

Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
10 years ago

Some apposite commentary on the London riots from the UK’s Telegraph – hardly a rabidly left-wing news organisation:

The real causes are more insidious. It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for freefall. The causes of recession set out by J K Galbraith in his book, The Great Crash 1929, were as follows: bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in “corporate larceny”, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.

All those factors are again in play. In the bubble of the 1920s, the top 5 per cent of earners creamed off one-third of personal income. Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since then. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion.

This isn’t much different from commentary I’ve read elsewhere which points to a materialistic culture which assesses personal & social worth in terms of plasma TV ownership as a major contributor to the rioters’ willingness to break shop windows to obtain plasma TVs and other goodies.

Pedro @25:

“This opens the way to two much more productive questions: “Why are they acting badly? What can we do to change this?””

Easy, punish them.

That’s just facile – you’ve only answered the second of the two questions I posed and even then you offered a standard conservative formula as your answer. What if “punishment” doesn’t work – what if all it does is take criminals and turn them into worse criminals (and there’s plenty of evidence that that is just what it does). What value punishment then?

So here’s a new question – are we really interested in looking for ways to reduce the occurrence and risk of crime or would we rather indulge in “tough” measures (like mandatory sentencing etc) that make us feel good while they actually aggravate the problem of crime? I know which I’d prefer but I’m a bit of a weirdo.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

And from your second link Pedro:

Extended and severe downturns that engender long-term unemployment rates of 15 or 20 percent in poor and minority communities can have criminogenic effects, not only because they foreclose economic opportunities, but also because they perpetuate an underclass culture that fails to educate and socialize young men.

David Wilkie
David Wilkie
10 years ago

“Better get to foil hat on David, the UN black helicopters will be buzzing around.”

You’ve never been that bright Pedro. But you can see the sense of acting such that when something happens, find out what the people who PREDICTED that it would happen were saying. People out there took the stimulus heist and the bank bailout heist and predicted that the streets would be full of violence. You didn’t listen to them then. Maybe you ought to listen to them now. The problem was the bank and stimulus heists. The problem was not the streets burning. Thats a consequence and not any comparable problem.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

“I believe that culture explains social mobility. The US has had lots and the UK relatively less.”

It’s lucky you picked Britain as a comparator Pedro, otherwise your statement would be just plain wrong. See this Huffington Post article from not so long ago:

Is America the “land of opportunity”? Not so much.

A new report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) finds that social mobility between generations is dramatically lower in the U.S. than in many other developed countries.

So if you want your children to climb the socioeconomic ladder higher than you did, move to Canada.

The report finds the U.S. ranking well below Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in terms of how freely citizens move up or down the social ladder. Only in Italy and Great Britain is the intensity of the relationship between individual and parental earnings even greater.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

Patrick why would somebody have a “mentality that they are entitled to what they can get” if they *could* afford it in the first place?

Also “stealing because they couldn’t afford” is not entirely logically equivalent to what I actually said “they wouldn’t be likely to steal it if they could afford it”.

rog
rog
10 years ago

“Why are they acting badly? What can we do to change this?””

Easy, punish them.

This reads like the recipe for a police state and as history has shown, you need a lot of police to punish a bad population and the process is essentially unproductive and eventually catastrophic. Far better to have fewer police and a population gainfully employed.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Sure, wiz, if they were billionaires then they might not have bothered. But I don’t think they can’t afford them in any meaningful sense…there are lots of things I can’t afford, but I doubt you would have much sympathy for me looting them!

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

Except I don’t have any real sympathy for the individuals looting the items that they did. But I do for the majority of the members of similar communities that struggle under the same conditions but don’t channel any similar sense of financial hopelessness or social disconnection into violent behaviour.

Anyway, nobody’s suggesting they need to be billionaires. Indeed, if there’s anybody especially likely to have a ‘sense of entitlement’, it is the children of the very wealthy, so I’m struggling to see why that would be hugely relevant.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Now youhave really lost me! I too feel sympathy for those who are faced with a constant struggle to make ends met and real difficulty imagining their way out of it! But I don’t really.see how that is supposed to flow ijto sympathy for their kids whose almost wholly unjustified sense of entitlement and lack of.’strong’ moral code leads them to think that if there is an opportunity to loot some jice clothes or perhaps.a binch of electronics that they kight be anle to make a buck from, well, why not?
I ssay ‘sense of entitlement’ bas a way of describing that belief that one is entitled to what one can get, by whatever means – I don’t know what you would rather call this – the belief that society owes you something, the flopside of that stupid belief so rightly skewered by Margaret Thatcher that ‘society’ owes ‘these people’ something and thus ought to look after them

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Ken, I was thinking about it over the long run. For most of modern times the US would have been one of the greatest examples of social mobility. I don’t doubt that social mobility has decreased in the US recently and I expect two groups will be the ones most frozen. I picked the UK as a classic example of culture driven low mobility. I don’t think anything in the OECD report affects my claim that it is culture that allows social mobility.

The Turks in scandinavia don’t seem to enjoy much social mobility.

Prison is not the only punishment. Though some people ought to be in prison to protect the public. Where is the evidence for social programs that made a difference to social pathologies? I belief our govt just spent 18 months trying to hide a report indicating just the opposite with our most disadvantaged.

Wiz, you hunted right through the piece to select the nugget you think supports your argument, meanwhile missing all the bits about how the connection between social pathology and economic problems takes a very long time to develop.

Exactly Patrick. Let’s here it for the deserving poor and acknowledge most of all that people first need to take responsibility for themselves.

I don’t know about the situation in the UK, but I’ll bet that the areas from which the rioters come have the highest levels of disfunctional families, and especially a lack of dads. There is certainly nothing the State can do about that. If anything the evidence is that the State has, over the last 50 years, done more to undermine the family unit than any other factor in society.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

Um…even allowing that you apparently typed that with your knuckles I’m having a hard time trying to work out how it’s a logical response to my comment…

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

(That was to Patrick)

To Pedro: “missing all the bits about how the connection between social pathology and economic problems takes a very long time to develop” – I didn’t miss them at all, and never argued otherwise.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

And Pedro your last two sentences are again contradictory – if there is nothing the state can do about dysfunctional families, then how can you argue it has done so much to undermine families?

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Well, I meant it can’t fix them, and I think you knew that. But there is a big parallel between the growth of welfare and the increase in single parent families. Now, I think these are hard issues. Imagine being forced, literally or socially, to give up your child, as happened to my mother in law. But that does not change the facts about kids (and especially boys) growing up without fathers.

wizofaus
wizofaus
10 years ago

Kids have been growing up without fathers since time immemorable. Indeed, it was probably norm for the more violent parts of human history. I believe also Sweden has one of the highest rates of children growing up in single parent families, yet we don’t see that translating into the sort of hopelessness currently evident in the UK.

Do you believe the state could solve the problem of dysfunctional families by reversing whatever policies have contributed towards them in the first place?