Wealth and Want
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Asset Poverty

In 21st century America, one respected researcher (Edward Wolff, of NYU) has used as criteria for asset poverty whether a family has sufficient net worth, net worth other than home equity, or liquid assets to support themselves for just three months at the federal poverty level for their size of family.  The statistics, generated from a well-documented panel study data, are distressing.  Many will look at those statistics and whisper a quiet "tsk! tsk!," which suggests an impression that those families are merely irresponsible.  Consider the possibility that other dynamics are at work.

A large share of the income of most households goes to paying for housing, either in the form of a rent check to a landlord or a mortgage check to the lender who paid off the previous owner of the house. An additional payment goes to the town in property taxes, though that usually works out to only a few dollars per day. But on top of that, we pay income taxes (federal, and in many places state, and sometimes local), sales taxes (and in some counties these are as high as 11%), and wage taxes. Most of these tax dollars are used for activities that help support property values: local services, schools, infrastructure, transportation systems, even military protection and emergency services.

Relatively few of us have sufficient other assets to support ourselves for any length of time. (Is Bush's "Ownership Society" the answer to this? Not exactly, because, like other "fences and bandages" strategies, it doesn't get at the underlying problem: the privatization of the rent on what should be our common assets. First things first. The "ownership" problem will fix itself once we've corrected the underlying distortion. Small measures that don't, in Thoreau's words, hack at the root of evil, will not succeed, though they will occupy our attention for long periods.)

But even those who haven't read Wolff's work know something now they didn't know in the early summer of 2005, before Katrina: that thousands of people in one of our larger cities lacked sufficient means to evacuate in the face of a hurricane that threatened to flood the city.

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

BUT it will be asked: If the land system which prevails in Ireland is essentially the same as that which prevails elsewhere, how is it that it does not produce the same results elsewhere?

I answer that it does everywhere produce the same kind of results. As there is nothing essentially peculiar in the Irish land system, so is there nothing essentially peculiar in Irish distress. Between the distress in Ireland and the distress in other countries there may be differences in degree and differences in manifestation; but that is all. ...

When there is famine among savages it is because food enough is not to be had. But this was not the case in Ireland. In any part of Ireland, during the height of what was called the famine, there was food enough for whoever had means to pay for it. The trouble was not in the scarcity of food. There was, as a matter of fact, no real scarcity of food, and the proof of it is that food did not command scarcity prices. During all the so-called famine, food was constantly exported from Ireland to England, which would not have been the case had there been true famine in one country any more than in the other. During all the so-called famine a practically unlimited supply of American meat and grain could have been poured into Ireland, through the existing mechanism of exchange, so quickly that the relief would have been felt instantaneously. Our sending of supplies in a national war-ship was a piece of vulgar ostentation, fitly paralleled by their ostentatious distribution in British gunboats under the nominal superintendence of a royal prince. Had we been bent on relief, not display, we might have saved our government the expense of fitting up its antiquated warship, the British gunboats their coal, the Lord Mayor his dinner, and the Royal Prince his valuable time. A cable draft, turned in Dublin into postal orders, would have afforded the relief, not merely much more easily and cheaply, but in less time than it took our war-ship to get ready to receive her cargo; for the reason that so many of the Irish people were starving was, not that the food was not to be had, but that they had not the means to buy it. Had the Irish people had money or its equivalent, the bad seasons might have come and gone without stinting any one of a full meal. Their effect would merely have been to determine toward Ireland the flow of more abundant harvests.

I wish clearly to bring to view this point. The Irish famine was not a true famine arising from scarcity of food. It was what an English writer styled the Indian famine – a "financial famine," arising not from scarcity of food but from the poverty of the people. The effect of the short crops in producing distress was not so much in raising the price of food as in cutting off the accustomed incomes of the people. The masses of the Irish people get so little in ordinary times that they are barely able to live, and when anything occurs to interrupt their accustomed incomes they have nothing to fall back on. ...read the whole article


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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper