Poverty And "Guard Labor"

I'm no economist, but this article about the research of economist Samuel Bowles is very, very interesting. Below is just a snippet.

Guard labor supports what one might call the beat-down economy. Community Action’s Porter sees it all the time.

“We have based almost everything we have done on the idea that we always need a part of our workforce that is marginalized—that we can call this group into action at any time, pay them nothing and they will do anything that needs to be done,” she says.

More discouraging, perhaps, is the statistical fact that a person born into this workforce has little chance of rising beyond it.

Again with the numbers:



The first number is the likelihood, expressed as a percentage, that a child born to parents whose incomes fall within the top 10 percent of Americans will grow up to be at least as wealthy.

The second is the percentage likelihood that a person born into the bottom 10 percent of society will stay at the bottom.

Just to drive the point home, here’s a third number: 1.3

That’s the percentage likelihood that a bottom 10 percenter will ever make it to the top 10 percent. For 99 out of 100 people, rags never lead to riches.

These estimates come from research by one of Bowles’ former students, American University economist Tom Hertz, published in Unequal Chances, a 2004 book co-edited by Bowles. To arrive at these figures, Hertz mined the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey of 4,800 American families that’s been updated each year since it began in 1968, the year Martin Luther King inspired Bowles to study inequality.

It may not come as a shock that rich kids who grow up learning to sail eventually buy yachts, while the offspring of burger-flippers might hope to rise to be the night managers for whole crews of burger-flippers. What’s troubling about this research is that poverty tends to persist through generations, no matter how individuals try to improve their circumstances.

So, much of what Americans tell their children is wrong. It doesn’t really matter how long you go to school or even necessarily how hard you work. The single most important factor to success in America is “one’s choice of parents,” as a contributor to Unequal Chances wryly put it.

What about natural intelligence? “The problem with IQ is that it’s just not very important in determining who’s rich and who’s poor. And most people don’t believe that,” Bowles says.

What about education?

“Being willing to sit in a boring classroom for 12 years, and then sign up for four more years and then sign up for three or more years after that—well, that’s a pretty good measure of your willingness to essentially do what you’re told,” Bowles says.

This bodes ill for the American Dream of upward mobility. It also puts the lie to a can-do cliché underpinning much US economic policy: namely, that people in need should get a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.”

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