Tag: poverty

Americans Have More than They Realize

According to Gallup, more Americans think of themselves as “have-nots” today than at any point since Gallup began posing the question almost thirty years ago, while fewer Americans see themselves as “haves.” (Please see Emily Ekins’s earlier post for an in-depth analysis from a different angle). But do Americans actually have less in 2015 than in 1988? Let’s dig into the data to see whether Americans might have more than they realize.

2015 is the first year when Americans spent more money dining out than they spent on groceries. Let’s examine why that might be. In 2015, U.S. GDP per person (adjusted for inflation) reached an all-time high. At the same time that average personal wealth is rising, many necessities like food are going down in price. As a result, spending on the basics takes up a smaller and smaller share of an American’s personal disposable income—dropping from 39% in 1988 to 32% in 2013. This means that Americans have more money left at the end of the day, which they can then choose to save, invest, or spend on luxuries like dining out.

Not only are Americans wealthier on average, but they are also working less. The average American worker in 2015 works 30 fewer hours in a year than her counterpart in 1988, and yet is almost $18,000 dollars richer in real terms.

HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry recently pointed out that today’s young Americans may actually be the luckiest generation in history, based on what they can buy with earnings from a summer job. And increases in real wealth do not capture technological advances, which also contribute to rising living standards. The quality and variety of available goods is improving across the board. Almost no one had a cell phone in the United States back in 1990, but today they’re ubiquitous—and more useful, with an app for just about everything.

In many ways, Americans have more today than ever before: more leisure time away from work, more disposable income left after basic expenses,  more choice in what they buy, and more advanced technologies at their fingertips.  Of course, there are still people who live in genuine need. The Great Recession and various growth-retarding policy decisions have done great harm, especially to the poor. Still, if the many positive trends that we are seeing continue, then hopefully more Americans will come to count themselves among the haves instead of the have-nots. To learn more about improving living standards in the United States and beyond, pay a visit to HumanProgress.org.


Video: An Introduction to HumanProgress.org

If you’re familiar with Cato’s project HumanProgress.org, then you probably know that according to the available data, people today are wealthier, healthier, better educated, and less exposed to violence than in the past. HumanProgress.org provides you with the tools to explore how the state of humanity has changed over time. But even if you have visited the website before, you may not be aware of every feature it offers. Did you know that HumanProgress.org allows you to compare datasets of human wellbeing against one another, allowing you to see if the datasets correlate? Or that you can download a customized chart or map with the click of a mouse? Our new introduction video offers a rundown of all our current features. Check it out:

Why the World’s Poor Choose to Pay Private School Tuition

In The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, researcher James Tooley documented how low-cost private schools operated in the world’s poorest areas, from the slums of Hyderabad in India to remote mountain villages in China and shanty towns in Kenya. According to the international development crowd, these schools shouldn’t exist – after all, the governments in these areas provide schooling at no charge. Why would the poorest of the world’s poor pay for something they could get for free?   

The answer, of course, is that they know they get what they pay for. As one father in poverty-stricken Makoko, Nigeria put it:

“Going to the public school here in Nigeria, particularly in this area in Lagos State, is just… wasting the time of day… because they don’t teach them anything. The difference is clear… the children of the private school can speak very well, they know what they are doing but there in the public [schools], the children are abandoned.”   (Page 129, emphasis in the original.)

A recent article in The Economist illustrates this phenomenon:

THE Ken Ade Private School is not much to look at. Its classrooms are corrugated tin shacks scattered through the stinking streets of Makoko, Lagos’s best-known slum, two grades to a room. The windows are glassless; the light sockets without bulbs. The ceiling fans are still. But by mid-morning deafening chants rise above the mess, as teachers lead gingham-clad pupils in educational games and dance. Chalk-boards spell out the A-B-Cs for the day. A smart, two-storey government school looms over its ramshackle private neighbour. Its children sit twiddling their thumbs. The teachers have not shown up. 

What’s the difference? It mostly comes down to a matter of incentives. Asked why parents choose to pay private school tuition when the government schools are “free,” one government school principal in Ghana explained: 

It’s supervision. Proprietors are very tough. If teachers don’t show up and teach, the parents react. Private schools need to make a profit, with the profit they pay their teachers, and so they need as many students as they can get. So they are tough with their teachers and supervise them carefully. I can’t do that with my teachers. I can’t sack them. I can’t even remove them from [the payroll] if they are late or don’t turn up. Only the District Office can. And it’s very rare for a teacher to be sacked. (Page 71.)

It’s no wonder then that private schools are proliferating in the world’s poorest areas. According to The Economist, hundreds of new private schools are opening in Lagos, Nigeria, many of them charging less than $1 a week. In poor countries, official estimates show that private schools now educate more than one-fifth of all students, double the proportion a decade ago. And even that figure probably underestimates private school enrollment since a high proportion of private schools in poor countries are unregistered. As The Economist notes, “A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records.”

The market is still emerging and although the private schools tend to outperform the government alternatives, that isn’t a very high bar. Parents often lack access to information about school performance from reliable sources. Schools have an incentive to exaggerate their performance, so some in the international aid community want the government to set and enforce national standards and mandate national exams. However, there is no good evidence that national standards or testing drive performance. Moreover, as The Economist observed, ”where governments are hostile to private schools, regulation is often a pretext to harass them.” 

The absence of government standards does not imply the lack of any standards. In a competitive market, schools have an interest in demonstrating to parents that they provide high-quality education. The rapidly expansion of the private sector will create opportunities for non-profit or for-profit private certifiers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, as The Economist highlights, there are low-cost ways to provide parents with the information they need:

In a joint study by the World Bank, Harvard University and Punjab’s government, parents in some villages were given report cards showing the test scores of their children and the average for schools nearby, both public and private. A year later participating villages had more children in school and their test scores in maths, English and Urdu were higher than in comparable villages where the cards were not distributed. The scheme was very cheap, and the improvement in results larger than that from some much pricier interventions, such as paying parents to send their children to school.

In a corresponding editorial, The Economist calls on the governments of poor countries to “boost” private education through school vouchers “or get out of the way.” The editorial also argues that “ideally” the governments should “regulate schools to ensure quality” and “run public exams to help parents make informed choices” but also observes that “governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be able to these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not doing them at all.” Indeed

Rather than lobby the often-corrupt and/or incompetent Third World governments, the best thing NGOs could do to improve education would be to grant scholarships directly to the poor and provide private certification and/or expert reviews of schools. If we want to ensure that even the world’s poorest children have access to a quality education, schools should be held directly accountable to parents empowered with the means to choose a school and the information to choose wisely. 

Video: The Fate of Our World

The state of the world is improving. Child mortality, poverty, and violence are declining, while life expectancy, incomes, and education are increasing. While many problems remain, most indicators of human well-being are trending in the right direction—especially in the developing world.

If you are interested in a realistic look at the state of humanity, then I highly recommend that you watch this video:

Learn more.

Costa Rica’s Growth Paradox

Can a country enjoy a relatively high growth rate for a quarter of a century and still be unable to reduce its poverty rate? That’s the case of my homeland, Costa Rica, which happens to have a critical presidential election on February 2.

For over 25 years Costa Rica’s growth rate has averaged 4.7 percent a year – one of the highest in Latin America – and yet the country’s poverty rate has been stuck at around 20 percent since 1994. Even worse, Costa Rica is one out of only three Latin American countries where inequality has risen since 2000.

Today, I’ve published a study looking at some of the causes. Even though Costa Rica has undergone a substantial liberalization process since the mid-eighties, the country’s economic model is still in significant ways based on a mercantilist system that is biased in favor of certain sectors of the economy at the expense of the poor. You can read the paper here.

Inflation and Injustice

More than a few places in this world people are trying to better themselves by saving money. Many people without access to formal financial services (or awareness of their benefits) are trying to amass capital by squirreling away cash. If wariness and luck prevent that money from being stolen, their nest-eggs might provide life-saving health care, seed capital for businesses, the means to move, education for children, and numerous other enhancements to poor people’s well-being. I say good for them. But there are people out there who don’t care if government policy stands in the way.

Unknown to many cash-hoarders—unsophisticated investors who should have our sympathy—official government policy in many countries is to inflate the currency. Under stable conditions, such policies might reduce the value of the existing stock of money at a rate of about 2% per year.

That is a boon to governments, of course, which are typically debtors. The policy quietly reduces real government debt by 2% annually without need of raising official taxes. And whether they spend the money themselves or infuse their banking sectors with liquidity, governments use monetary policy to curry favor with important political constituencies, thus solidifying power.

An Alleged Decline in Economic Mobility and Arthur Brooks’s ‘47 Percent Solution’

A Wall Street Journal article by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, urges presidential candidate Mitt Romney to acknowledge two “simple facts” about income inequality. One is that “low-income Americans are struggling,” which is surely true by definition. The second is that “economic opportunity is declining.” The author scolds the Republican convention for being too cheerful about the facts, as though Romney never mentioned shrinking median income, or high poverty and unemployment.

That second “simple fact” (declining opportunity) is not simple and not a fact. When Mr. Brooks asserts that opportunity is declining, he means “mobility” supposedly declined before 2006 according to one source—a 12-page brief by Katharine Bradbury of the Boston Fed.   But “mobility” is not at all the same as “opportunity,” because studies of this sort treat downward mobility the same as upward mobility. Bradbury is troubled by people making fewer big leaps from one fifth (quintile) to another, which Mr. Brooks likewise defines as declining opportunity; yet her data cannot distinguish ups from downs.

What is ostensibly being measured is the percentage of people in each fifth (quintile) of the income distribution who spend five or six years out of 10 in either the “same or adjacent” quintile. Bradbury compares three 10-year periods: 1976 to 1986, 1986 to 1996, and 1996 to 2006 and finds 27.4 percent remained in the poorest quintile during the earliest period and 25.9 percent in the most recent 10 years.  Since that suggests increasing mobility for the poor, she switches to emphasizing how many remained in either the same “or adjacent” quintile. This permits Bradbury to argue that those in the poorest or richest quintiles “did not move very far.”

Switching to “adjacent” quintiles means anyone in the top or bottom quintile would have to leap all the way to the middle to be counted as having moved at all. Since those at the bottom or top can only move in one direction, Bradbury therefore finds (of course) that for “those in the poorest or richest quintile… mobility is quite low.” People in other quintiles can move either up or down, so their “mobility” appears higher by this peculiar definition, particularly during severe recessions.

It is unsurprising that there was greater movement (up and down) between adjacent income groups in 1976-86, since that period included nasty inflationary recessions in 1980-82, followed by four years of 4.8 percent economic growth. The 1986-96 period, by contrast,  experienced a barely measurable slump in 1991, while 1996-2006 included the exhilarating tech boom of 1997-2000 and the perilous housing boom of 2004-2006. When the economy is rising steadily there is less risk of falling to a lower quintile, hence less movement (aka “mobility”). Since Brooks and Bradbury define income  stability as “declining opportunity,” they would presumably define 1929-33 or 2008-2009 as periods of rising opportunity.

A more serious study of income mobility by Treasury economists Gerald Auten and Geoffery Gee in the June 2009 National Tax Journal found,  “considerable income mobility in the U.S. economy over the 1987–1996 and 1996–2005 periods. Consistent with prior mobility studies, the data show that over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period. By contrast, those with the very highest incomes in the base year [the top 1 percent] were more likely to drop to a lower income group and the median real income of these taxpayers declined in each period. Economic growth resulted in rising incomes for most taxpayers over both time periods.” The largest percentage increases in real incomes were for those initially in the lowest income groups, while the most dramatic downward mobility was among those who had briefly occupied the top 1 percent.  This evidence is consistent with my own work showing that rising income shares for the top 1 percent have been associated with falling poverty rates and vice-versa.