Kevin Drum

Weekend Follow-Up #1: Welfare Reform and Deep Poverty

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 2:45 PM EST

I'd forgotten about this even though I wrote about it two years ago, but here's yet another chart about "deep poverty":

In this case, deep poverty is defined as households with income under 50 percent of the poverty line (about $10,000 for a family of three). The calculation is based on more accurate measures of poverty that have since been endorsed by the Census Bureau.

Now, this is a different measure of poverty than the one used by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer that I noted yesterday. Their measure is both tighter (looking at even lower poverty rates) and looser (it counts households that are in extreme poverty even for short times). So it's not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, once you look at the historical numbers, it doesn't look like the 1996 welfare reform act slowed down the growth of welfare spending, nor did it have more than a very small effect on deep poverty.

None of this is especially meant to defend welfare reform. But 20 years later, it doesn't look like it really had quite the catastrophic impact that a lot of people were afraid of at the time.

Advertise on

I'm Now a Certified and Legally Responsible Non-Harasser of Women

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 7:17 AM EST

Hey, look what I got. That's right: I've completed MoJo's required course on sexual harassment, no longer limited just to supervisors.

This doesn't have much practical value, since I work at home and have no one to harass even if I wanted to. Nonetheless, I was eager to take the course. You see, I'm immersed in opinions about PC culture and diversity and the idiocy of it all etc. etc. But I have no personal experience of it. If you're talking about schools, I graduated 40 years ago and I have no kids. If you're talking about Silicon Valley or Wall Street, I have no clue about either. If you're talking about workplace harassment, it never really came up at any of my previous jobs, and I haven't participated in an actual workplace since 2001.

So how was it? Pretty boring, really. If someone rejects your advances repeatedly, back off. Don't fire someone for rejecting you. Don't go into a woman's cubicle a dozen times of day to take a deep sniff. (Yes, that was a real example.) Don't spend three hours a day watching hardcore porn in your office. Don't go around telling black people they're "articulate" or Asian people that "of course" they're good at math. Don't lose your temper. Talk out your problems. Don't be an asshole.

Of course I, along with almost everyone who reads this blog, is an overeducated know-it-all who finds all this stuff trivially obvious. That's not true of everyone by a long way, and stuff like this is probably useful for them. This was also a pretty breezy course, not like the 8-hour sessions that are apparently required at some places. (I guess. How would I know?)

Bottom line: I didn't learn much, but I suppose plenty of people would. And it really wasn't very onerous. Mostly just common sense, not lefty indoctrination. So what's everyone complaining about?

Hooray! A Brand New Site For Creating Lots of Charts About Democracy.

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 6:52 AM EST

The world is awash in charts these days. It's a great example of a simple proposition of economics: when something gets cheaper to produce, we produce a lot more of it. Just as computers turned a dozen daily pieces of mostly useful snail mail into hundreds of mostly useless emails, they've turned data laboriously collected by experts and then laboriously converted into clunky bars and lines by the art department into colorful masterpieces that can be created by pretty much everyone at the push of a button or a modest investment in learning Excel. Half the charts I produce for this blog come either directly from my good friends at the St. Louis Fed or indirectly by downloading their handy datasets into Excel.

There are lots of sites that produce charts these days, with new ones popping up all the time. Joshua Tucker points us today to V-Dem, which provides "15 million data points on democracy, including 39 democracy-related indices." The V-Dem website tells us that it is "a collaboration among more than 50 scholars worldwide which is co-hosted by the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden; and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, USA." So let's take a look.

V-Dem is pretty easy to use: pick one or more countries, one or more variables, and a time period. Click "Generate Graph" and you're off. So let's take a look at a few that I drew more or less at random. Here's #1:

That's peculiar, isn't it? We're used to thinking of the United States as the king of money in politics, but we're actually the steady blue line right in the middle. Italy apparently spends more than us and Germany spends a lot more. But in the 2000s, Germany plummeted down to middle and Sweden skyrocketed up to the middle. By 2013 we were all pretty much the same.

Of course, I have no idea what this is based on. In theory, I could download the codebook and eventually decipher the data sources, but you can probably guess what the odds of that are. So for now it remains a bit of a mystery. Here's #2:

This one is less surprising. It tells us that in the mid-1900s American political parties weren't very cohesive. Then around 1980 they started to become much more cohesive, looking more and more like parliamentary parties in Europe. Oddly, though, V-Dem thinks that Democrats and Republicans got a bit less cohesive around 2005. This contradicts the conventional wisdom enough that it might be worth someone's while to look into it. #SlatePitch, anyone? Here's #3:

Sweden and Germany are the winners here, unsurprisingly. But the US does pretty well too. We've gone from a distant fourth place in 1972 (among the seven countries shown) to a close tie for first. Of course, everyone else has gotten a lot better too. In fact, if you want to zoom way in for the details and take a glass-half-empty approach to things, we're actually in last place now. We were doing pretty well until 1993, but since then we've made almost no progress. Once again, if this is true it would be interesting to investigate. What happened in 1993 to suddenly blunt the rise of women's participation in politics?

So that's that. On the upside, there's a lot of data here and it's pretty easy to generate colorful charts out of it. It's interesting too. Three out of three random charts that I created instantly posed challenges to the received wisdom that might benefit from further study. On the downside, it's difficult to figure out the source of the indices or to download the data series themselves unless you're willing to download the entire dataset and load it into your statistical app of choice. That makes further study hard for non-experts. Nothing's perfect, I guess.

Why Do Foreign Singers Sound So American?

| Sat Feb. 13, 2016 3:24 AM EST

I'm asking this just out of curiosity. Feel free to mock me about it in comments.

Here's my question. When I listen to popular music, I almost never hear a foreign accent. I hear accents perfectly well in ordinary speech, but not when the words are sung. With occasional exceptions, when I listen to U2, Adele, Abba, or Keith Urban, I don't hear Irish, British, Swedish, or Australian accents. To me, the lyrics mostly sound pretty close to my own familiar California accent. this because popular foreign singers deliberately adopt an American accent? Is it due to some inherent property of slow, melodic speech? Is it because my hearing is defective?

There are exceptions, of course. The Beatles all had such distinctive Liverpool accents that I usually recognize it in their singing. Beyond that, I don't really listen to enough music to have much sense of how common this is, especially outside of the top 40 realm. Anyone know what the deal is here?

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 February 2016

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 3:51 PM EST

Just look at our little lovebirds. So adorable. So innocent looking. In reality, of course, they are just furry little batteries, recharging for their next romp around the house. In the meantime, though, Hilbert and Hopper remind you not to forget Valentine's Day. Buy your loved one some treats this weekend. Treats are good.

Raw Data: Income Gains By Age Since 1974

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 3:45 PM EST

Here's some raw data for you. It's nothing fancy: just plain old cash income growth for individuals, straight from the Census Bureau. It gives you a rough idea of how different age groups have been doing over the past few decades. Enjoy.

Advertise on

Senator Sanders, Why Do You Hate President Obama?

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 1:40 PM EST

Most of last night's debate was pretty familiar territory. But toward the end, Hillary Clinton unleashed a brand new attack:

Today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test....In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers' remorse when it comes to President Obama's leadership and legacy.

....The kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans....What I am concerned about is not disagreement on issues, saying that this is what I would rather do, I don't agree with the president on that. Calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012, you know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements.

....I understand we can disagree on the path forward. But those kinds of personal assessments and charges are ones that I find particularly troubling.

The problem Sanders has here is that this is a pretty righteous attack. Back in 2011 he really did say, "I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president...who cannot believe how weak he has been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans and there’s deep disappointment." And he really did push the idea of a primary challenger to Obama. And he really did write a blurb for Buyer's Remorse: How Obama let Progressives Down. So there's not much he can do about this attack except sound offended and insist that everyone has a right to criticize the president.

But will it work? It was actually the only hit last night that struck me as genuinely effective. Obama still has a lot of fans who are probably surprised to hear that Sanders has been so tough on their guy. If Hillary Clinton keeps up this line, it might be pretty damaging.

Health Update

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 12:55 PM EST

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, my chemo regimen changed last month. The Revlimid reduced my M-protein level for a little while, but then flattened out around 0.6, which is still a long way from zero.1 So now we're trying Revlimid plus dexamethasone. Dex is pure evil, but it's also pretty good at fighting multiple myeloma, so let's all give a big round of applause to evil! My first test result came back yesterday, and after only three weeks on the dex my M-protein marker has finally budged from 0.6. It's now down to 0.48. There's still a long way to go, but at least things are once again moving in the right direction.

1Standard explainer: myeloma cells produce M-proteins, so measuring them is a good proxy for the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow. This will never get to zero, but when the M-protein marker reaches zero it means the myeloma is at a very, very low level. So that's the goal.

Take 2: Another Look at Bernie Sanders, Welfare Reform, and Deep Poverty

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 12:19 PM EST

A couple of days ago, in a post showing the growth of social welfare spending over the past few decades, I noted that the passage of the 1996 welfare reform act didn't even show up as a blip. In terms of money spent, it's turned out to be a non-issue.

This was not meant to be a defense of welfare reform. Believe it or not, I really do try not to write authoritatively about subjects I know little about, and welfare reform is a complicated topic that I'm only glancingly familiar with. I don't really have either the chops or the desire to relitigate it right now.

However, that post prompted a response that's probably worth dealing with at least briefly: namely that even if the dollar amount was relatively small, welfare reform did hurt the very poorest. This is a live topic right now because of the recent publication of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer. Among other things, Edin and Shaefer focus on the effects of cash, and they note that welfare reform eliminated cash payments to the very poorest, who generally don't have jobs. This was deliberate: the whole point of welfare reform was to link public assistance to jobs as a way of motivating the poor to find work.

There remains plenty of disagreement about whether this was a good idea. For now, though, I just want to present Edin and Shaefer's own data about extreme poverty. Here it is:

The green line is the one to pay attention to if you want to know the comprehensive effect of all changes to the social welfare system over the past couple of decades. And what it shows is that the percentage of households with children in extreme poverty increased from about 1 percent to 1.5 percent. That represents an increase of fewer than 500,000 households.

In other words, if we simply handed over $10,000 to every household with children in extreme poverty, it would cost only about $15 billion. Given that we spend about $1 trillion annually on social welfare benefits, this is peanuts. It's not money that prevents us from addressing deep poverty, it's political preference. Welfare reform was very deliberately crafted to reduce payments to people who don't work, and one of the effects of that is a small increase in extreme poverty.

If you want Bernie Sanders to publicly denounce this state of affairs, this is the issue you need to address. To what extent should our welfare system hand out cash to nonworking adults? For how long? With what strings attached? My guess is that Sanders doesn't really want to dive into this because he knows it's a big hot button and he doesn't want to get bogged down in something that takes the spotlight away from his larger economic message. But that's just my guess.

If you want to read more about this, there's plenty available. We've written about it several times at Mother Jones, including here, here, here, and here. Over at Brookings, Ron Haskins critiques Edin and Shaefer here. They respond here.

In Obama's America, Nobody Can Buy a Good Tomato

| Fri Feb. 12, 2016 11:00 AM EST

Julia Belluz writes today about one of my saddest pet peeves: the sad state of tomatoes in America.

Harry Klee, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida, spent years developing a nutrient-dense tomato that also happens to taste great. It’s been called — by a panel of 500 experts — one of the most delicious tomatoes on the planet....Klee’s tomato, the Garden Gem, is also eminently durable, with a great shelf life and track record of disease resistance — properties growers care about. But he’s been told the Garden Gem is a little too small (about a half or a third the size of your average supermarket tomato). And that means it’d require more labor to pick, and therefore a little more cost. The fact that it's delicious doesn't count for much.

"The bottom line here with the industrial tomatoes is that tomatoes have been bred for yield, production, disease resistance," Klee told me....This greatly distresses Klee. "I have a lot of worries, and one is that we are raising a whole generation of people who don’t know what a tomato is supposed to taste like," he said. "If they go to Italy and buy a tomato at a roadside stand, it’s a life-changing event." For now most Americans are stuck with massive, perfectly red, eminently tasteless tomatoes.

Well, I want a Garden Gem, even if it is small. Of course, I'd want one even more if it were large. When I was growing up (cue Boomer nostalgia music) we bought tomatoes from a local stand and they were both huge and delicious. We ate them like apples. Were they the best tomatoes on the planet? Probably not. But they were pretty good! Light years better than anything I can get in the supermarket today. So it's not impossible to grow tomatoes that are both tasty and large.

Thankfully, this is one of the things Donald Trump will probably fix once he becomes president. There will no longer be any undocumented workers around to pick them, but that's a problem for another day.