Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Risky Ride

It is probably no surprise to anyone reading this that simple answers appeal to everyone.  We identify a problem and we seek to identify a solution.  This blog has continually pointed out—along with many social commentators—that the problems facing the lower income levels in America are not easily solved.  When the problems are intertwined it is only natural that the solutions would be the same.  Unfortunately, we’re not faced with a ball of yarn that can be easily unraveled by pulling on the loose end.  Many knots delay our progress along the way.  Nonetheless, this is all a long-winded introduction to what I want to discuss today: cars.

Besides living expenses, a car is where most Americans spend the next largest chunk of change.  This is the case for the upper-middle class and the workers with the country’s lowest wages.  Some advocates of increased social mobility point to the car as the missing piece of the puzzle for the working poor.  (See, for instance, here and here.)

Of course, there are significant problems working poor individuals face with car ownership or even leasing.  Those with poor credit and lacking capital for a down payment can face exorbitant interest rates leading to debt on a run-down used car often at the same price as a nicer, brand new car.  I know I put some readers to sleep with my last post, so I won’t get too technical in discussing bankruptcy-related issues here, but suffice it to say that the changes to the bankruptcy laws included a change relevant here that should be briefly discussed.

Say an individual owns a car worth $5,000 (book value) but owes $8,000 to the car lender.  Normally, that $8,000 is an under-secured claim, but nonetheless secured by the car.  Under the old law (pre-October 17, 2005), that person could file for bankruptcy under chapter 13 and alter the nature of the debt.  The chapter 13 would allow the person to owe only the value of the car ($5,000) as a secured debt and render the remaining debt ($3,000 here) unsecured.  The effect was that the person still had to pay the $5,000 or lose the car, but paid only a portion of the $3,000—in the same way that the person would pay a portion of his credit card debt.  If the person had a 10% distribution in bankruptcy he paid $300 so the car debt drops from $8,000 to $5,300.  

The new law changes this result.  No longer can the over-secured portion of the car debt be “stripped” from the total.  Car lenders evidently thought this would help them get more money for those cars.  I join others in believing the end result is more likely a decrease in chapter 13 filings for debtors in such a situation, and many of the cars simply being surrendered (returned in satisfaction of the remaining debt) by those who still choose to file.

The advocates of car ownership for low-wage workers cited above seek to remedy the problems stemming from undesirable loans by offering low-interest loans (presumably through government assistance).  But owning a car is not like owning a house.  Cars (at least the cars we’re realistically discussing here) don’t appreciate, nor do they retain their value.  This is known.  What remains unknown is whether the used cars driven by our poorest workers will run without problems.  The studies the same advocates rely upon indicate that workers with cars make more money each week and work more weeks each year.  Car ownership apparently also has an empowering effect—though so does increased earning capacity in general.  Yet a car adds a dimension of risk not properly considered in these reports.  Older cars are known to break down, sometimes requiring them to be towed.  Many workers at this level have little or no savings.  All of a sudden such a worker can be faced with having to purchase a $500 part, paying for the tow, paying for labor to install the part, and all the while missing work (and therefore hourly pay).  What if the car breaks down entirely or to an extent the worker simply cannot afford to fix?  Now the worker must get to the old job without a car—perhaps easily accomplished but perhaps not.

To me, such a risk is the same as having to take your child into the emergency room, or having your spouse miss two weeks of pay after losing one job and before starting another.  Many authors have noticed, after interviewing poor workers, that something as small as a few days without pay or one more bill tips the already sensitive balance between daily survival and disaster.  Suddenly the rent is impossibly late, grocery money is tighter than ever, and so on.  

What helps poor workers survive and potentially rise from poverty is not adding risk and expense, but reducing fixed costs, reducing the risk of unexpected costs, and promoting the mentality and logistics for fiscal responsibility.


[On a personal note, thank you to those who have continued to give me constructive criticism about the blog.  It is very much an experiment in progress and will hopefully improve over time.]

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bankruptcy and Consumer Protection

As many of you know, some of the bankruptcy laws underwent moderate to significant revision recently (the vast majority of the changes took effect Oct. 17, 2005). Bankruptcy is a personal interest of mine both from a social standpoint and from a professional standpoint. For now, however, I'd just like to defer to a bankruptcy judge out of Austin, TX in his recent opinion dealing with a provision added on Oct. 17 when the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 took effect. Judge Monroe's opinion makes a strong and interesting statement--made all the stronger from the pen of a federal judge.

Judge Monroe's opinion is also discussed in a blog that frequently adds intelligent discussion to BAPCPA-related issues. I'm pasting the text of his opinion below. For those intested in the cite, it's 2005 WL 3627817 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. Dec. 22, 2005).

United States Bankruptcy Court,W.D. Texas,Austin Division.
In re: Guillermo Alfonso SOSA Melba Nelly Sosa, Debtor(s).

MEMORANDUM OPINION

FRANK R. MONROE, Bankruptcy Judge.

On December 20, 2005 at 10:00 a.m., the Court held a Show Cause hearing as to why this case should not be dismissed for failure of the Debtors to file a Certificate of Credit Counseling. The Debtors appeared pro se but had copies of pleadings which had been filed that morning by James R. Chapman, Jr., the proposed attorney for the Debtors. Such pleadings included a Response to the Court's Order to Show Cause. Additionally, the Debtors answered questions of the Court at the hearing.

This is core proceeding under 28 U.S.C. § 157 as it is a matter both arising under Title 11 and in a case under Title 11. As such, the Court has the jurisdiction to enter a final order in this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1334(a) and (b), 28 U.S.C. § 157(a) and (b)(1), 28 U.S.C. § 151, and the Standing Order of Reference from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas of all bankruptcy matters.

Statement of Law

The Congress of the United States of America passed and the President of the United States of America signed into law the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (the “Act”). It became fully effective on October 17, 2005. Those responsible for the passing of the Act did all in their power to avoid the proffered input from sitting United States Bankruptcy Judges, various professors of bankruptcy law at distinguished universities, and many professional associations filled with the best of the bankruptcy lawyers in the country as to the perceived flaws in the Act. This is because the parties pushing the passage of the Act had their own agenda. It was apparently an agenda to make more money off the backs of the consumers in this country. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Act has been highly criticized across the country. In this writer's opinion, to call the Act a “consumer protection” Act is the grossest of misnomers.

One of the more absurd provisions of the new Act makes an individual ineligible for relief under the Bankruptcy Code unless such individual, “has, during the 180-day period preceding the date of filing of the petition by such individual, received from an approved nonprofit budget and credit counseling agency described in § 111(a) an individual or group briefing (including a briefing conducted by telephone or on the Internet) that outlined the opportunities for available credit counseling and assisted such individual in performing a related budget analysis.” See 11 U.S.C. § 109(h)(1). No doubt this is a truly exhaustive budget analysis.

An individual who does not receive such counseling can only receive an exemption from such requirement if such debtor “submits to the court a certification that-(i) describes exigent circumstances that merit a waiver of the requirements of paragraph (1); (ii) states that the debtor requested credit counseling services from an approved nonprofit budget and credit counseling agency, but was unable to obtain the services referred to in paragraph (1) during the 5-day period beginning on the date on which the debtor made that request; and (iii) is satisfactory to the court.” See 11 U.S.C. § 109(h)(3)(A). In the event such waiver is granted, the debtor must complete such counseling within 30 days after the petition date. See 11 U.S.C. § 109(h)(3)(B).

Simply stated, if a debtor does not request the required credit counseling services from an approved nonprofit budget and credit counseling service before the petition is filed, that person is ineligible to be a debtor no matter how dire the circumstances the person finds themselves in at that moment.

This Court views this requirement as inane. However, it is a clear and unambiguous provision obviously designed by Congress to protect consumers.

Facts of this Case

In this case the Debtors admit they did not seek or request the required credit counseling services from an approved nonprofit budget and credit counseling agency before filing their case even though they talked to Mr. Chapman by telephone prior to filing and he rightfully advised them to do so. Instead they filed this Chapter 13 case on December 6, 2005, “as an emergency measure to stop foreclosure on their homestead.” See Debtors' Response to Court's Order to Show Cause. The Debtors responded to the Court's question as to why they waited so long to file their case by stating that they had been working with the mortgage company to determine the exact amount that was owed but that the lien holder had refused to accept payment at the last moment and that was what necessitated the emergency filing of bankruptcy.

Mr. Sosa has now undergone his credit counseling on Friday, December 16, 2005 and filed a Certificate. No certificate has been filed by Mrs. Sosa.

Decision

One Debtor has now substantially complied with the intent of the Act by undergoing the required credit counseling. One has not but still could within the time limit if a waiver could be granted. However, because the Debtors did not request such counseling before they filed their case, Congress says they are ineligible for relief under the Act. Can any rational human being make a cogent argument that this makes any sense at all?

But let's not stop there. If the Debtors' case is dismissed and they re-file a new case within the next year, it may be that some creditor will take the position that the new case should be presumed to be filed not in good faith. See 11 U.S.C. § 362(c)(3)(C). Section 362 further states that if subsection (c)(3)(C) applies, then the stay in that second case will only be good for thirty days unless the debtor (i) files a motion, (ii) obtains a hearing and ruling by the Court within such thirty-day period and (iii) proves by clear and convincing evidence that the second case was filed in good faith. It should be obvious to the reader at this point how truly concerned Congress is for the individual consumers of this country. Apparently, it is not the individual consumers of this country that make the donations to the members of Congress that allow them to be elected and re-elected and re-elected and re-elected.

The Court's hands are tied. The statute is clear and unambiguous. The Debtors violated the provision of the statute outlined above and are ineligible to be Debtors in this case. It must, therefore, be dismissed.

An Order of even date will be entered herewith. Congress must surely be pleased.

Thanks, Judge Monroe.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Look down before you look up

A previous post entitled "International vs. Domestic" briefly discussed my wish that we first looked to helping people in America before helping those in countries like Africa. I think I failed to articulate what I really meant. There is no question that poverty and hunger in Africa is absolutely tragic. The same can be said for other areas of extreme poverty. But what really bothers me is how we in America believe that hunger and extreme poverty are problems found across borders and oceans. They are not. We have these same problems around the corner, down the street, or a few train stops away.

A passionate British organization called Oxfam now has a division in America. I find their approach to hunger advocacy and fasting interesting, but the same lurking ignorance highly disturbing. In advocating fasting campaigns Oxfam provides a planning guide you can download from the website here. Listen to some of the quotes given to help advocate the importance of fasting.

This is what Brittany Hansen said while attending Loyola Marymount in L.A.: "I did not choose to be born as an American into a country where food is so abundant that obesity, rather than hunger, is an issue. The [Oxfam] Hunger Banquet caused me to think a great deal. I felt moved to help those in need...particularly those who did not choose to be born into poverty...." Apparently Oxfam and Ms. Hansen think that hungery, poor Americans chose that over a better life.

Stephen Land, a lawyer in New York City who apparently had participated in their fasting program for over 30 years said this: "...I know that whatever I'm being asked to give up is stuff I would spend completely frivolously, because here in this country, we have vastly more than we need." This would be a rather interesting perspective to the thousands of American children who nearly fail school for failure to eat in the morning.

Oxfam and those advocating for the hungry and extremely poor people around the world have no doubt chosen an honorable cause. But to pursue that cause in a way that further perpetuates silence and ignorance regarding hunger in our own backyard is frankly irresponsible and self-destructive to the very cause they seek to promote.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Full Employment

I had lunch the other day with a friend of mine who happens to be very conservative in most of his views. I mentioned to him how surprised I have been to learn about widespread hunger in America. He did a double-take and I had to repeat my point: “There are literally millions of Americans hungry every day.” He slapped his hand on the table in nearly spastic shock.

What he said is quite simple: 1) there are no starving Americans, and 2) this country is at full employment. Something didn’t seem right to me at the time, but I was too distracted trying to keep an open mind in front of a friend I was quickly realizing shared few of my values. Now I’d like to touch on his points.

ONE: There are no starving Americans.

This point has been discussed previously in this blog, and I plan to continue discussing the point. My concern is that I cannot seem to get an accurate sense of how widespread American hunger is in 2006. You find a good number from a reputable source only to see that it’s 20 years old. Disbelievers will simply point to changes made at all levels of government to rectify the situation. But I’m working on getting some accurate sense no matter how long it takes. Let’s go to argument #2 now because it inherently disproves #1 to the extent necessary here.

TWO: This country is at full employment.

That’s irrelevant to the issue of hunger. The simple fact is that every living American could work two jobs and we would still have hungry citizens. Let’s leave discussion of Wal-Mart, the minimum wage, etc. for this discussion because it only adds smoke to the scene. Instead, let’s talk about the United States military. Here I’m talking about American citizens, living in America, and obviously employed. There’s a little known secret Loretta Schwartz-Nobel helps uncover in Growing Up Empty: enlisted men and their families go hungry all over this country every single day. This isn’t coming from Schwartz-Nobel’s research, but from informal interviews conducted with people who help feed our hungry soldiers and their families. A group in San Diego called Military Parish Visitors claims to have fed 10,000 active-duty military families in 1999. Three factors largely determine whether an active-duty family goes hungry: 1) whether the soldier is married, 2) whether the soldier has children, and 3) where the soldier is stationed. We can discuss this at length another time. Here, I just want to use the military to point out that it is likely that every military base in the United States has thousands of starving soldiers and families living on or near the base.

Assuming for a moment that the husband is enlisted and the wife stays home with her two children (usually very young children as we’re talking about very young soldiers), the husband is given money for food. No money is provided for the wife and children. Sure, the wife could work—especially if we’re at full employment (i.e. the moment she actively seeks work she’ll get it). But then who takes care of the children? Often it appears that childcare costs equal roughly the pay she can expect at a job. So she can either stay home and breastfeed her children or go to work, leave her children with someone else, and end the day financially at pretty much the same place.

In fact, these people are SO poor that they don’t have $14. That’s right—in one example relevant to the families helped by Military Parish Visitors, families can join a program called SHARE where they pay $14/month and work two hours in exchange for a significant amount of food each month. The director of Military Parish Visitors tells of the one problem: many of the young enlisted men do not have $14 early in the month when it is due.

Why don’t we hear more about this? Well it’s complicated but it appears that enlisted men and women and their families are too proud to admit that they are soldiers but can’t afford to feed their kids, and of course, the military has a distinct interest in keeping things the way they are and discouraging the young enlisted men from questioning the establishment.

Let me then take a step back for a second and add that there is generally no relationship between employment and homelessness. Obviously homelessness is poverty in its utter extreme, but this also means that homeless people are logically amongst the least likely to have a consistent food supply. America has a couple hundred thousand homeless people at the moment, and perhaps 100,000 homeless children. Commentators have pointed out that as unemployment has gone up and down (even to historic lows), homelessness continues to increase. Thus, as I said above, employment levels and homelessness appear entirely unrelated.

There is also an increasingly odd relationship between employment and food assistance. Welfare to Work legislation obviously aims to get someone who is dependent on food stamps, for instance, to become dependent on a paycheck instead. But to push this goal the legislation "rewards" work by cutting off benefits like food stamps. So much misplaced energy goes to preventing fraud, that the moment a family has a working member the state can stop allowing the family to have the stamps. But there are huge problems with this result. Some are so obvious I can't believe I'm going to write them, but think about it for a moment with me. Maybe the husband's goal is to get two or even three jobs to properly support his family. You usually can't go out and find three jobs that will hire you and let you start working at the same time. So maybe you get one job and then work on the next one or two. But that one job does not give you enough money for food. Realistically, he's probably working 30 hours/week which is a typical amount for a low-wage job. Technically he's employed and my friend loves to see that he is part of America's full employment statistic. The government also loves this because now that he has a job he apparently doesn't need the stamps. This is obviously wrong. Often times two jobs are not enough with low wages. Thus, until the husband can get a second job, the family is worse off with one job and no stamps than with no job and stamps. Of course, some of the legislation's effects don't leave people with that option for long, but the point cannot be lost. Work is not a panacea.

In short: plenty of Americans of all ages are starving, full employment is irrelevant, and I’m not having hunger discussions over a meal anymore.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Charles

I met a homeless man today -- I really met him, unlike any other interaction I have had with a homeless person in the past. The funny thing is, when I started this blog I figured I'd have to go out there and meet some homeless people to see how they live, what caused them to be homeless, etc. That's not how this happened. Instead, I was just walking to lunch by myself down one of the main streets in downtown Houston. A homeless man on the corner asks me for some money. He looks pretty old and in bad shape -- at least I can see that he's on crutches and if he's in half as bad a shape as the crutches he's having a good day. I only had $1, plus some $20 bills. So I gave him the $1.

I felt a bit bad, so I made a somewhat passing comment that I was going to buy some lunch but I'd be back this way probably with change. It was a line that just rolled off my tongue without meaning. I suppose I've spit up lines like that before to help from swallowing the guilt that I know is coming. But this man asked where I was going to get food. No homeless person has ever asked me that. I said I didn't know but if he wanted something I'd bring it back. He pointed to a convenience store down the block and said he could get something there. I offered to go there and bring something back back but he instantly said he'd come with. Now he looks homeless and he's on crutches that no one needing crutches should ever be using. I am in my suit and tie. Walking down that block with him was a pathetic growth experience on my part, for it made me realize that I'd happily walk to that store with Ken Lay, but I was extremely self-conscious to be seen walking with this man. Yet you quickly get over that when you talk to the person.

His name is Charles. He never thought he'd be homeless. He asked me for food because he hadn't eaten in a day and a half. He never thought he'd be homeless but "they" cut his check off recently. I asked why, and was given as honest an answer as possible: he was caught committing check fraud. He said it in a way that wasn't apologetic but wasn't careless. The pause asked for follow-up and Charles said he just couldn't live on what he was getting. Now we were at the convenience store. Charles draws extra attention because one of his crutches doesn't have the rubber bottom. So we're talking about metal on concrete--or tile in the store. He ordered some fried chicken and was sworn at in Spanish by the woman behind the counter for not being clearer at first that he wanted fries with his chicken. So some fried chicken, french fries, an orange juice and two pastries later we left.

The worst part of the entire experience was how Charles wouldn't stop thanking me. I said the first thing that came to mind in an effort to make him stop without myself sounding like an idiot: "Charles, you don't have to keep thanking me. If the situation was reversed you'd do the same." He never thanked me again until I handed him a $20 with the food and said goodbye. $30 in food and cash just made a crippled, homeless man's day and it made me pause about as much as ordering a round of drinks at a bar I'd typically frequent.

When I was in college I studied Buddhism along with a few other religions for my major. I remember my favorite concept in Buddhism was that the Buddha can be reincarnated as anything or anyone. He might be a bird, or a CEO, or a salmon, or a homeless man. And because you never know, you have to treat everyone (and I suppose everything) like he might be the Buddha. Rabbi Hillel would agree. Five years after graduation I finally realized what I learned.

I hope you don't mind that I've shared this experience with you.

Fixed Costs

Sorry, that's not a very sexy title. I had some ideas but opted for boring over stupid. Anyway, at least it is accurate.

In reading books on middle-class Americans and academic literature on this or that problem for working Americans (of all classes) with their respective solutions, one thing astonishes me: few people remember that it’s all about the fixed costs. As David Bach stresses in the Automatic Millionaire: what matters is not how much you EARN, but how much you SPEND. This is a very basic concept. Thus, as the authors of The Two Income Trap point out at length, having two income-earners is not the answer to financial security. The Two Income Trap quotes a particularly stupid paragraph from the book, She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families are Happier, Healthier, and Better-Off -- but it provides a good example of how many authors miss the real issue. This is the quote:

“Because they have two full incomes that help buffer them against the terrible wrenches of a changing economy, they do not feel the gut-wrenching vulnerability of standing at the edge of a pecipice, ready at any second to topple off the cliff if a company downsizes or relocates….The duel earner family offers economic stability, protection against financial disaster.”

OK—but are we not missing the obvious questions? For instance, does this hypothetical couple already spend both spouses’ salary? If so, then how is the second income a safety net? If anything, it is a liability, for it has brought them accustomed to a lifestyle simply unsustainable without two income-earners. As is evident when you look at the numbers (and as I have seen many times now in watching bankruptcy proceedings), nothing matters more than your home and your car. If one spouse is laid off you cannot simply eat oatmeal to still be able to pay the bills. And for those people who take it easy on car payments, share a car, etc., that means the mortgage payment is the ONLY thing that matters.

Take the hypothetical, middle of the road family used in one discussion from The Two Income Trap. (Why start my own example when I can build on a Harvard law professor's hypothetical?) This example uses year 2000 dollars, but if you want, you can quickly adjust the numbers using this: http://www.westegg.com/inflation/. The family is well above the median income level in America with a $67,800 combined income for husband and wife. We'll assume the family has two children. The family's fixed costs include a home in a relatively attractive area (for their income level) and two non-luxury cars (among other expenses). These fixed costs add up to 75 percent of the couple’s monthly income. That leaves the family with 1,412.50/month BEFORE taxes. Good luck saving away for a medical emergency or the husband’s company downsizing with that amount. First you’ll have to remove taxes (in this example they are taxed at 33 percent), then food, utilities, insurance, and everything else a couple with two children spends money on besides cars and a house.

Rather than just guess, I'm going to use the IRS National Standards for Allowable Living Expenses. These are national numbers based on gross monthly income, and again, we're using numbers for a family of four. We calculated that the family's gross monthly income equals $1,412.50. That means the family should be expected to spend, each month, $526 on food, $44 on housekeeping supplies, $170 on apparel and services, $43 on personal care products and services, and $188 on "miscellaneous" expenses -- for a total of $971. That leaves $441.50. No where in there is car insurance (let's say $75 for each of them), utilities (we'll guess $100/month), cable/cell phone/internet (a low number would be $200). But we've now hit $450 in the expenses not considered in the IRS guidelines, and we were only left with $441.50. I don't want to get lost in the numbers -- the point is that it all comes back to what we're working with: 25 PERCENT of the couple's income. They don't need to make more money to live absolutely fine -- they need to spend less on the cars and the house.

Get a cheaper house? The mortgage in this example is $9000/year (or $750/month). It is difficult to argue that such an amount is unreasonably high for a dual-income family with children. Maybe their car payments could be reduced? Well they are not dirt cheap, that is for sure. The hypothetical couple has two cars with monthly payments on each car at $333.33. Is that unrealistic? I’m not sure because it is difficult to predict without a sense of their credit. Is that nonetheless ridiculous? Well I would say yes considering they spend only $83/month more for their mortgage than their cars. Assume the couple spends less on their cars -- as is probably more realistic -- and they are now left with some extra cash to spend on the things we never thought of (preschool, car repairs, etc.).

So now the family can perhaps live within its means and spend about as much as it makes each month. This is the perfect world for such a family. According to She Works/He Works the family is better off with two income earners. Because both the husband and wife work the book argues that this family has a safety net -- they can protect against financial disaster. How? Where? That is simply not going to happen. The Two Income Trap makes a far more intelligent argument by pointing out that in the one-income family it's the non-working spouse who provides the safety net. You buy a house and finance your cars under the assumption that you make one spouse's salary. If that spouse is fired or a something else happens, the other spouse is the safety net.

This leaves us back at David Bach’s mantra: it only matters how much you spend, not how much you make. Millions of Americans surely face this situation. The temporary second job has been replaced the wife temporarily entering the workforce from decades ago. The permanent second job has likely replaced the wife permanently entering the workforce.

So if it matters how much the family spends, why can’t they spend LESS? That seems easy, but is in fact an enormously complicated question, and goes to the heart of the worsening middle class dilemma—a discussion for another day.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The unrelenting struggle

Today we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr., and our discussion naturally turns squarely to race issues in America. Or does it? Well, that remains to be seen at the end of the day. As the massage therapist says when rubbing your foot to help relieve your neck—everything is connected. Race is solidly intertwined with poverty, low-income workers, urban decay, and so on. Race is also noticeably absent from much of politics. It took a long time for many major cities to elect their first black mayor. The Senate is dominated by rich, white men, the House is not much better, the Supreme Court is increasingly looking like the list of authors in a great books class, and conventional wisdom on the presidential barrier points first to a woman before a person of color.

I some respects, it is responsible and necessary that many social commentators put forth faces of white Americans to show hunger, poverty, and personify other social ills. This is often in an effort to represent a less one-sided face of American poverty. At the same time, sometimes I have the feeling we are over-compensating for the often inaccurate perception that poor Americans are black and Latino. Many problems facing the poor white family overlap with those challenging the poor black family—but many do not. The differences cannot be ignored. Of course, many differences are increasingly celebrated, and I was lucky to see the Bud Billiken parade years ago on Chicago’s south side, and Houston’s MLK parade this afternoon. But our cultures frequently feel no closer than England is to Africa. As Cornel West points out in Race Matters (written in the early 1990s), the vast majority of white suburbanites live in towns with less than a 1 percent black population. To me, such a comment is hugely significant.

I am Jewish, and have often heard and stated that we, as a group, comprise less than 2 percent of the American population. Those unfamiliar with this statistic frequently seem shocked that the number could be so small. Yet in many suburbs of America’s largest cities, blacks comprise an even smaller percentage. Nearly everyone I know grew up in such a suburb. How can we be expected to know what issues are really facing contemporary black Americans? If it’s not visible from the train window, off the interstate, on the news, or somewhere else that passes effortlessly before our eyes, we never see how many black Americans live. We can then discuss jobs, housing, welfare and other social issues in the abstract. West is rightly hard on liberals and conservatives alike. And the media just gives us what we want to hear in a pretty, good looking package. George Will could just as well be writing in a sterile bubble. Even West has to go out of his way to return to areas rife with black poverty.

Days like to today remind me that we need to take a more realistic, comprehensive approach to problems of race (and poverty) in this country. Everything looks relatively nice and neat to most of us—just as to the mother who cracks her child’s door to ensure that he’s cleaned up his toys. But we need to check under the bed, lift up the carpet, and look in the closet. The longer we wait the more we’ll find there. As West says in the introduction to Race Matters: “we are on a slippery slope toward economic strife, social turmoil, and cultural chaos. If we go down, we go down together….The paradox of race in America is that our common destiny is more pronounced and imperiled precisely when our divisions are deeper.” Our schools are still largely segregated. Blacks earn less than their white counterparts. Black men are disproportionately stopped by police officers, charged with crimes, and incarcerated. Poor black women are urged to have fewer children without proper sex-education or contraception. And Cornel West, a professor at some of the most prestigious universities, finds himself ignored by ten consecutive available cabs in New York City. He has reached the pinnacle of professional success and yet he is left feeling like the kid no one wants to pick in gym class. White Americans never seem to remember how blacks are truly treated here, and black Americans are never given the opportunity to forget.

The fact that American race-relations show marked improvement is as dangerous as it is helpful to black Americans. Peaking in the room and seeing the floor clean may only mean that we’ve pushed the mess out of sight. But in the end, we may find that the CEO in his shiny skyscraper and the black child in an urban ghetto are no less connected than the foot from the neck.

I’ll leave my closing to the words of a man who retained unwavering optimism until his last breath:

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.”

--Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on December 10, 1964 in Oslo, Norway)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Welfare to Work

How many people have heard that welfare creates a disincentive to work? In fact, no respectable study shows any such effect. It was quite surprising to me when I first discovered this, but it makes sense. Perhaps people believe that welfare creates a disincentive to work because it seems like human nature to only work if you need money. But it equally seems a part of human nature to want to be good at something, to want to feel useful, to want to feel like you have a purpose. Even if that purpose is to show up at 9 a.m. for work, there's a difference knowing that someone is expecting you. (Some make convincing arguments that these very reasons are the primary motivations behind young, poor women having children. Now an unemployed woman who does not excel at school and has little to look forward to has a reason she's needed. Maybe a boss isn't expecting her tomorrow morning, but her baby certainly will be needing her.)

Equally interesting welfare statistics are the ones we don't hear so much about. In Growing Up Empty, Loretta Schwartz-Nobel points out major university and non-profit research indicating links between welfare and violence. Familes on welfare are three-times more likely to experience domestic violence than other families. Poor women face it the worst. Studies of various areas of poverty around the country indicate that 60 percent of poor women have been severely assaulted by a male partner. Over a third of the same women have had their lives threatened. Maybe we all expected that poor people lived in dangerous areas. But this is INSIDE their homes. Think about that the next time you feel safer alarming your house.

And there's more. Let's say someone writes me a comment tomorrow pointing to rock solid evidence that people on welfare are less likely to work--or maybe you just don't believe me. Well why are they less likely to work? We discuss welfare as though it creates a disincentive--in other words receiving welfare CAUSES one to be less inclined to work. Maybe they're really just related. We've already discussed a woman's circumstances at home. More likely than not, she is currently being abused, has been abused, or lives in fear of abuse. Of welfare women abused in the past, nearly 1/3 are forever left with a physical handicap or other serious problems (including mental or emotional). Could that be why they are less likely to go to work? Still more, what does it take to GET to work? Schwartz-Nobel actually visited Marks, Mississippi, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. immediately before his death. In Marks, one job apparently requires you to stand in tubs of water and skin catfish. The other job requires you to travel by public bus a substantial distance to a casino. That's it--just those two. What if you want to find a job and feel useful but there just aren't any? What if you can't stand in water all day?

The title of this post--"Welfare to Work"--obviously represents a political effort to discourage welfare and encourage work. The very name of this program seeks to reinforce what we THINK we already know: that you're more inclined to work if you aren't on welfare. This appears to be false, though it does sound darn good. As a solution to the problems of the poor, it is also easy, cheap, and very clean. Groups like Business Interface, Inc. (the new www.welfaretowork.org) take a much harder, more realistic approach to the same problem.

This post is simply to open the discussion on welfare. Citations, references and statistics to come.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The higher you climb...

One problem with a blog on social justice is that are so many different issues to discuss and many are very complex. There's the continual dilemma of whether to fully consider a topic or keep up a variety. Here, I'm continuing on my discussion of compensation but I promise to stop for a while after this one....

I previously mentioned the highest paid CEO in America: Terry Semel of Yahoo, who earned just over $230 million in 2004. Overall, the CEOs of the 500 largest American companies earned $5.1 billion in 2004. Forgetting the sheer magnitude of this number, consider simply the trend of CEO compensation. From 2003 to 2004, these 500 CEOs earned a 54 percent increase in pay. The top paid CEO is also indicative of the trend at the top—the top paid CEO in 2003 earned $148 million. Thus the difference at the top is one of $82 million, but perhaps we should talk about it this way: it was an increase of 1,822 median income families (about a 7,000 person town). Lawyers like Bob Stucker (who I've mentioned previously and intend to represent only an example) will always find new ways to mask executive compensation, but increases of such a scale cannot be hidden at any hourly rate.

But in their defense, a 54 percent is not the norm. The comparable group of 500 in 2003 increased compensation by 8 percent from 2002. And in 2002 their compensation actually decreased 35 percent. Even after my previous discussion of “compensation” as a less misleading word than salary, compensation, etc., there are still ways to keep the top man happy while making it look kosher to everyone else. Many CEOs made up for lost compensation through other means, like significant increases in stock options. And while Semel’s $230 million may seem insane, Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang made $650 million in 2000 (almost entirely from vested stock options). I guess it’s good to be the king. Even the CEOs of large charities routinely make $300,000 to $500,000/year (Abe Foxman, for instance, brings home over $424,000/year).

Using 2004 dollars, the median family income in America did not increase one dollar between 2003 and 2004. Now I really am trying to be balanced here. Of course minimum wage is only one factor at the end of the day to many of America’s poor—especially the working poor. We have to consider the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), food stamps, and other programs. If the wages remain constant but the EITC increases across the board, then it somewhat moots the point. So let’s put it in perspective with one additional statistic: at the same time, (2003 to 2004) the demand at food pantries rose 17 percent in many cities, and consumer debt reached an all time high. Is that latter a result of a excessive consumer culture? We will discuss that another day, but I don’t believe so. If there’s one thing that lower-middle class and working poor spend more it’s the mortgage payment (not the fancy TV).

To some extent, the absurdity of all the numbers above is comforting. Elements of this trend are simply not sustainable. As I discussed with a close friend the other night, most people already know that the top 1 percent of America holds a massively disproportionate amount of wealth. There’s no news flash here. But consider the upward trend in executive pay relative to your average American. It is frightening. The majority of America is worse off every year and a small group of political and economic elite just get a larger slice of the pie. Market forces at work or a disaster waiting to happen?

I talk to people about this type of problem and they ask: so what are you going to do about it. Well for now, nothing. But thinking and talking about these issues is a good step at this point. As Milton Friedman points out in his 1982 preface to Capitalism and Freedom, talking about change helps us keep our options open when circumstances make change possible and necessary. When the change becomes necessary, it is the ideas that are “lying around” that become critical. It is our responsibility to develop alternatives to existing, inferior policies, and to keep those ideas “alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” I don’t often quote Milton Friedman, but he was a proponent for change, and he held strong, patient views on precisely how to effectuate those changes. I hope we can do the same.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What's in a Word?

I left something out in my last post that should be discussed when raising the concept of awareness (and especially relevant because I also took this idea from Ehrenreich). Ehrenreich never fails to quickly point out if a word is "suspicious" but easily overlooked when used in casual conversation. And thus, the point of the present post is to raise awareness that words often have meanings we never intended.

We already know when this is painfully obvious in politics. Take the "insurgents" in Iraq--or are they 'freedom fighters"? It is certainly a lot harder to hate them when the name suggests that they are fighting for a basic right. But it's just a name. The same guy uses the same bomb and kills the same number of Marines regardless of what you call him.

Abortion is another clear example. Obviously, when two people disagree they usually hold opposing views. One person might be for marijuana legalization and another might be for retaining the status quo on drug laws. Yet taking opposing views is harder when someone claims they are "pro-life"--for anyone who disagrees with that person's view of abortion must be anti-life or pro-death, or something similar. And the person who supports the viewpoint known as "pro-choice" puts his opponents in a similar dillema. Even worse is a "partial-birth abortion"--which could just have easily been termed a late-term abortion. But the two terms illicit different responses. I, for one, can't say "partial-birth abortion" without smiling--for I know how hard a group of "pro-lifers" worked to get me to use that word.

Ehrenreich subtly urges the same awareness over far less controverial words and concepts. (My examples are frequently my own, so don't blame her if they are bad.) Take words like "profession" versus "job". (I'm leaving the periods outside the quotes for this discussion even though it is grammatically incorrect.) How about "career"? The dictionary on my Mac tells me that a career is: "an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress." Is that what you thought? So the guy at Subway who never intends to leave is engaged in a "career". He can certainly get raises, become an assistant manager, etc. But the words are not used this way. An executive at a bank is engaged in a career, while the bank teller is working at a job. The lines seem less clear than implied in conversation.

Why do we call people who work as hard as they can and try to make as much money as possible "ambitious"? Aren't people like that "greedy" -- "having an intense and selfish desire" for money? But what are they after anyway? I could say "money" and "power". They might say "wealth" and "professional success". With that job, do they just get "benefits" like the janitor, or do they also get "perks"? Next time you hear someone use this word while holding his head high, remember that it is a "special right or privilege" but also historically "a thing that has served its primary use and is then given to a subordinate or employee as a customary right."

So this all raises the question of why we bother changing words or the meaning of words. Sometimes this seems to make a word sterile. It may be more respectable to seek wealth over money--to seek "wealth" and just so happen to become "rich". Another reason may be that it reinforces the class systems. Ehrenreich implies that you can talk to your friend over a cappuccino and discuss your "compensation". Construction works don't get "compensation"--they get "wages". Just as they don't get "perks"--only "benefits".

But I'll argue with Ehrenreich on this point. To some extent, we need these words. When we keep the words the same it allows the rich and powerful to evade true comparisons. If we only discussed salary, for example, then CEOs would seem to make far less than they actually bring home each year, for CEOs receive deferred compensation, stock options, etc.. When you have lawyers like Bob Stucker out there you need words like compensation that will encompass anything that ultimately gives an executive more money. Some calculations even include large expense accounts in an executive's comensation because it may be yet another way to game the system. Interestingly, www.charitynavigator.com does this. Perhaps it has become a way for CEOs of charities and NPOs to make the same amount of money in salary, spend less of it on the things they need, and therefore walk out at the end of the day with more. I'm not sure what portion, if any, of Abe Foxman's $424,000/year from the Anti-Defamation League includes an expense account. The same could be said for a word like "needy". In some respects, "needy" is sterile, for it brings forth a picture far less disturbing than words like "starving". But "needy" can help fight back misleading statistics. With "needy" there is no difference between starving and malnourished, between people who don't have a roof over their head and kids who don't have proper textbooks. Needy lets us pool together basic necessities and say that THESE people have unfulfilled basic needs. It's much harder to spin "needy" then it is "hunger".

In sum, what's in a word? Well, sometimes a lot. Some words reinforce elitism (regardless of intention). Other words sterilize actions and qualities that are otherwise frowned upon (even by the very people doing them). Still other words allow expansive meanings to fight back spin and hair-splitting. If you hear a word that makes you think about any of this, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Homework

Some people who know me and have read this blog commented that it may be too far to the left. I aim to put forth a balanced view in an effort to understand where the truth lies (often somewhere in the middle). I am hoping it is only the topics I've chosen so far that have left this taste -- to be remedied in time. But this made me think of sharing something I've thought about recently. It is homework, I suppose.

This idea comes from a comment in (I believe the penultimate chapter of) Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling. She is now best known for Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich doesn't phrase it exactly this way but it is the same idea. The concept is brilliantly simple: open your eyes and think about what is in front of you. What I mean is, if you are sitting on your porch and you see a perfectly pruned bush, think about how it came to look that way. Who pruned it? How much do they get paid? Where do they live? When you're at the grocery store and you pick up a carton of berries, just think about how the berries got there. Someone had to pick them. Someone had to drive them to the store in a truck. Someone had to take them off the truck and put them out on the shelf right there in front of you. How about a diamond ring? A wood table? A clean public restroom? Your McDonalds french fries?

But the concept doesn't apply only to object. How about the woman behind the counter at McDonalds, or the janitor that drops in to empty your garbage, or your waitress at the deli? My homework here is to just think about their lives for a second. Do they have kids? How much do they earn? How far would that money really go? How tired is she when she has to stop being a waitress and start her second (or third) job as a mother that night?

Whether your views are on the left, the right, the fancy diagonals that we keep creating and renaming, it does not matter. Statistics and academic arguments have their place, but they all come back to the people and things right before your eyes. I have ignored so much. Starting tonight I'm going to pay more attention.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

International v. Domestic

I cannot argue that international issues are not important, or that they are not sometimes of ultimate importance.  Nonetheless, it seems foolish for a country to ignore domestic issues in favor of international issues.  How can we discuss America’s involvement in fighting hunger in Africa, for instance, when highly respected physicians have repeatedly cried out that millions of Americans die from starvation every year?  (More on this another time, but it’s true and it keeps me up at night.)

Perhaps we can learn from our efforts and strategies internationally when working domestically.  This could include education and awareness, policy initiatives, and a variety of other avenues.  Just touching on education for today, take one of the more prestigious international education programs: the Fulbright Commission.  The Commission quotes its founder stating:

The Fulbright Commission aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.

I don’t think we can change the world overnight, but what if, every single day, we can add a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into domestic affairs.  A little more knowledge about the struggles and predicaments of poor and middle class America, a little more reason to our policies and news coverage, and a little more compassion to our stereotypes and prejudices.      

Monday, January 02, 2006

Class Is In Session

When I talk to people about social stratification, we often have to pause and make sure we’re on the same page.  How are the classes defined?  To ensure that we're comparing apples to apples, we'll have to get technical for a second and into the numbers.  Obviously someone who makes $10,000/year is in the lower class (and deemed part of America’s working poor) and someone who makes $500,000/year is in the upper class.  But where exactly do we draw the line?  In other words, where does the middle class begin and end?  Not everyone agrees, so let me first discuss some different views and then make it clear what I mean when I write lower, middle or upper class in this blog.  

Starting with the straight dictionary definition, the lower class is often described synonymously with the working class.  To me, this is problematic in that it does not seem inclusive of the homeless or the unemployed.  Nonetheless, the working class is the group of Americans who earn wages (rather than salaries), and are frequently employed in manual or industrial work.  We can all agree that the lower class is at the bottom.  No one is below.  Moving to the middle class the dictionaries essentially state that they are in between the lower and upper, and include Americans frequently employed as professional or business workers.  Now this seems overly inclusive.  A lawyer, banker or doctor is a professional in the traditional sense of the word, but certainly many individuals of each category make far too much money to remain in our “middle class” description.  A more accurate sense of “professional” might include social workers, teachers, pilots, architects, engineers, accountants, middle management, etc. (some commentators call the latter groups “pink collar” workers).  Then the dictionaries define the upper class unsurprisingly as the group with the highest social status—and the word “aristocrat” usually pops up somewhere.

The dictionary definitions would imply that we determine class largely by occupation.  To see a breakdown amongst industries we can turn to the U.S. Census Bureau.  The most recent statistics cover 2004 (and imply that the Census workers may have forgotten to drop by the penthouses and affluent suburbs).  The industry with the highest average pay is Management of companies and enterprises at $56,073/year.  So these would be the richest professional or business workers in the dictionary definition of middle class.  Break it down even more to occupation and lawyers top out at $71,868/year.  In the lower class we have, among others, Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting at $25,434/year and Accommodation and food services at $21,234/year.

The average American household earned $44,684 in 2004 (household includes anyone living there ages 15 and above).  But it is clearly difficult to piece out the classes using this logic when you move toward the middle of the earning spectrum.

Leaving the dictionary definition, we can look, to other calculations by the Census Bureau for guidance.  The Census Bureau also breaks income across the country into fifths, with a separate calculation for the top five percent of income earners.  Using the most recent data (2003), the Bureau calculates that the lowest fifth of the country earned up to $17,983.  This is clearly the lower class and includes the poorest of the poor.  The second fifth earned $17,984 to $33,999.  We could arguably consider this fifth to be the upper lower class or the lower middle class.  It seems that the second fifth must be split and overlap on either side.  A teacher earning $33,000/year is unlikely to be considered lower class.  The third fifth (or middle fifth) earned $34,000 to $54,439.  This is squarely in the middle class.  The fourth fifth and fifth fifth (or highest fifth, to avoid a tongue twister) earn $54,440 to $86,859 and $86,860 to $154,119 respectively.  These both seem to fit accurately in the middle class definition, with the highest earners arguably deemed the “upper middle class”.  Then we have the top five percent income earning American households for 2003, earning $154,120 and above.  The highest paid worker in America?  That would be Terry Semel as CEO of Yahoo.  Semel brought home over $230 million in 2004.  Thus, from $154,120 through Terry Semel, we seem to have identified the upper class.

Moving briefly to the private sector, the Drum Major Institute, a public policy think tank, believes that the middle class is conventionally known as those families earning between $25,000 and $100,000/year.  The American people may disagree, and polling data on who actually defines himself as “middle class” is interesting, but only further adds to the confusion.

For purposes of the discussions on this site, I will essentially be using the Drum Major Institute’s figures:

Lower class = >$25,000/year
Middle class = $25,000 - $100,000/year
Upper class = <$100,000/year.

One further term needs definition: poverty.  Two terms are used to discuss poverty lines: poverty threshold and poverty guidelines.  The poverty guidelines, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, is the more commonly used calculation, and the one I will be using here.  Just note that anytime the term “poverty threshold” is used, it is likely to differ from HHS’s poverty guidelines.  Additionally, I will only be using the HHS guidelines for the continental U.S. here—Alaska and Hawaii differ.  

According to HHS, an individual is “poor” if he earns less than $9,570/year.  A family unit is considered poor if the total combined income is less than $12,830/year with two people, $16,090 with three people, $19,350 with four people, etc.  (Just add $3,260 for each additional person to calculate any larger family unit.)  For now, we can ignore the potential problem that some families with many children may be deemed “poor” by HHS’s guidelines while still considered “middle class” by the Drum Major Institute’s class definitions.

Okay, now that we took care of that I hope we can avoid numbers for a while and talk policy.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Horatio Alger is Dead

Horatio Alger is dead. In fact, Horatio Alger died 1898, but his fame and popularity stems from a simple concept most Americans regard with patriotic pride: the belief that we live in the land of opportunity. Our British cousins have their royalty, lords and dukes. India has its caste system. But in America, anyone can become President, CEO, or at least a millionaire. In fact, this idea of American social mobility is a fallacy of remarkable proportions. American society is already far less mobile than it has been from the country’s inception. The most pessimistic evidence lists the United States among the less mobile first world societies (behind Canada and many European countries). But even conservative estimates indicate that a person has less than a 1 in 3 chance of moving up a class. At the lower end of the spectrum (bottom quarter), a person’s odds of moving up to the top quarter are roughly 1 in 10. Indeed, it is difficult even for a lower class individual to rise to the ranks of the lower middle class.

But is this a one-sided viewpoint? While someone can easily find studies showing that the sky may not be falling like I’ve stated, it is important to note that even those studies (indicating that social mobility remains relatively unchanged) paint a far less mobile America then most Americans imagine. Take a commonly cited study, for example, of 6,273 families across racial lines. When looking at these families over two generations, the economists found that only 6% of the poorest fifth ever made it to the top fifth. I’m not an economist, but those seem like pretty bad odds. In another study over two generations (again, a study that showed only a subtle decline in social mobility), economists found that a son or daughter in the 1990s was about 40% likely to remain in the same income bracket as his or her parents.

Such a conclusion might be shocking and difficult to swallow for most people. For if this is true, then the rich are rich not due to “winning” in a system of meritocracy, and the poor are not poor simply because they never bothered to make something of themselves. The Ivy Leagues are filled with legacies. The University of Michigan gives admissions preference to applicants with college-educated parents. How many non-first generation Americans do you know who became the first person in their family to go to college? How many college educated Americans do you know whose kids never graduated college?

But let’s slow down. Alger, a highly prolific author in the mid-19th Century, reinforced the American dream through characters like Ragged Dick and Tattered Tom. These were cheap, popular books detailing redundant rags-to-riches stories. Alger’s fame is carried on even today as a symbol of American social mobility. Unfortunately, his exaggerations in the late 1800s are somewhat ridiculous in today’s society. Nonetheless, I should point out that the Horatio Alger Association (of Distinguished Americans, Inc.) seeks to educate America’s youth about the limitless possibilities available to them through the free-enterprise system. Recipients of the annual Horatio Alger Award include such representative success stories as Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel), Colin Powell (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State), Sam Walton (at one time the richest man in America), Ronald Reagan (actor and former President) and Oprah Winfrey (at one time expected to be the first black billionaire – she passed the mark but wasn’t the first).

I am not saying that the American Dream doesn’t exist. We surely live in a society where more doors are open to more people than in many countries. The first sign of our openness is seen in the faces of Americans. We can picture a Japanese citizen, an Egyptian, or a Swede, but what about an American? Clearly our history as a melting pot makes such a caricature nearly impossible. As (former National Security Advisor) Zbigniew Brzezinski points out, America is unique in that anyone can become an American. But it is essential that society keep some perspective on just how many streets are still paved with gold. For most people, the American Dream will forever remain a dream. And most Americans will awake to a harsh reality: hard work won’t get you anywhere.

Losing the concept of meritocracy is no easier for the rich than the poor. Now the young corporate attorney has to wonder how much he really has earned, and how much of his success really has nothing to do with him, as an individual. Consider obesity. While this has not always been the case, being “fit” is something of a status symbol. Obesity is therefore a mark of shame. And the fit can relish knowing that they control their body image based on what they eat and their physical routine. The obese (disproportionately lower class) are gastronomical gluttons, or lazy individuals. Lay off the doughnuts and get off the couch, and you can look as good as anyone out there. But obesity research increasingly shows that this is flawed logic. In fact, a great deal of obesity has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s lifestyle. Many obese people are genetically fat, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. This is like much of poverty. No matter how much a lower class man works or how hard he tries, he is just as likely to remain poor as the obese man drinking Slim-Fast shakes is to remain fat. Why is this an especially troubling thought? Because it means the poor man deserves your scorn for his poverty as little as the rich deserve our respect for their success. But this is a complicated issue, and needs to be considered further.

One final thought:

Somewhat ironically, I currently reside is the self-proclaimed City of Opportunity: Houston, Texas. Proud Houstonians assure me that this city truly runs as a meritocracy. I never raised the issue that America as a whole is supposed to be a meritocracy. But maybe Houston is the City of Opportunity for the same reason America WAS the land of opportunity: it is young. Houston may be the fourth largest American city, but it has not been at the top of the list that long. Surely, a city cannot grow by 700 to 800% in one generation without a fair amount of opportunity. But as Houston becomes ever more established, its opportunities for social mobility will likely decrease.
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