response to gabriel’s “assumptions”

David Brady

Brayden’s note: The following was lifted from the comments of an earlier post, in which Gabriel critiqued David Brady’s presentation at a recent conference.  Given the intensity of the debate and to ensure that both sides were represented equally, I’m moving Dave’s response to the main page (with his permission). 

Thanks to Gabriel for coming to the talk and taking it seriously.  When I met Gabriel yesterday, I didn’t realize it was *this* Gabriel.  Maybe I should have been more careful with what I said.  I have a few responses, although I think this debate has been interesting.

I’d suggest at least some of the characterization of my talk is rather questionable.  I did get this very question about inequality.  I believe I made clear that OF COURSE inequality and relative poverty are similar concepts and measures.  I even cited that inequality measures tend to correlate about .95 (regardless of Theil, Gini, 90/10 etc.), while relative poverty measures correlate about .7 with those inequality measures.  So, they’re obviously associated.  I also clarified that the key distinction that a relative poverty measure doesn’t care what happens in the top half, while ginis are influenced when the top 1-10% takes off from the median (see past 30 years of the U.S.).  It is strange to call it a “bait and switch” as that implies intentional deception.  I think I was very transparent in acknowledging they’re certainly linked.  One could care about relative poverty and not care about rich people getting richer or could care about both inequality and relative poverty.  As well, the policy implication in the comments about immigration are way off base.  There is nothing about relative measures that implies keeping immigrants out as they’d swell the bottom of the distribution.  Even if there was, that wouldn’t be anything distinct about relative measures (e.g. “immigrants tend to live in less adequate housing, so more immigration means more absolute deprivation.”)  This is almost as silly a caricature as saying Bruce Western prescribes more imprisonment as a strategy to fight unemployment.  Come on….

The Irish case is a tough one.  Kieran hit the nail on the head.  In 1987, less than 15% of the elderly were relatively poor.  In 2000, more than 30% were. These numbers aren’t perfect and we’re only talking about income poverty (maybe many of those are not asset poor).  This may be a story of living and consumption standards rising much faster than pensions.  If your pension was set based on earnings from several decades ago, it might be tough to afford rent or not experience social exclusion and capability deprivation.  Nobody said the Irish poor are worse off compared to the Irish 20 years ago, the issue is if there are more poor or less. All that said, I can’t pretend to understand the Irish case perfectly, and I have spent some time asking people about this (indeed, including Kieran).

Brayden suggests that taxing the rich will result in less relative poverty.  But, I doubt this is the case.  Unless lowering the incomes of the top e.g. 25% *necessarily* results in a lower median, this wouldn’t result in less poverty.  I would suggest that high taxation on the top 25% is probably effective at reducing poverty if is distributed to the bottom 25%.   But, Brayden’s question raises the legitimate concern of how rising medians result in more relative poverty (even if the poor are staying at the same income).  This is a real problem we consider seriously (although economic growth is empirically negatively associated with relative poverty – so its hardly automatic).  What we do to address this is to also examine a measure of poverty intensity (% poor * avg. depth of poverty), which is less sensitive to a rising threshold.  Imagine a bunch of people were at 55% of the median income, and the median rises, and suddenly, they’re at 49% of the median income (and defined as poor).  Well, these people would have a very small poverty gap and would increase the poverty intensity measure only minutely.  I did not present the poverty intensity results, but they’re identical to the headcount results.

I would also raise some objections of omission from Gabriel’s recounting. My principal argument for a relative measure was that it is far and away the most theoretically justifiable way to think about poverty.  As sociologists, I would argue we should be interested in relative deprivation – deprivation and poverty defined according to the *social* context of people’s time and place. Oddly, economists are actually far more likely to use relative measures. Also, my other main reason would be that if one actually reads the founders of liberal economics (e.g. Hayek and Smith), they clearly and convincingly argue for relative measures as well.  Nobody accused them of a bait and switch and they still made these types of arguments about rising tides lifting all boats.  Last, my final argument was that if we actually look at the liberal economic practitioners making claims about rising tides, they also end up agreeing that relative measures (see e.g. Rebecca Blank or the 1995 NRC Commission) are far superior.  They use the official US measure as it is readily available, convenient and conventional.  None of these liberal economic practitioners try to make theoretical arguments to defend the measure – everybody knows it is indefensible.  There is also an interesting history about the politics of the official measure that one can read about in O’Connor’s _Poverty Knowledge_ and Michael Katz’s work.  If you read that historical work and still believe in the official measure, I’d be surprised.

My question for “absolutists” would be to propose a defensible absolute measure.  You could take the official US measure and multiply it by PPPs. But, the official US measure isn’t valid and reliable in the US to begin with. Extending it elsewhere wouldn’t make any sense since it’d be too high in all other affluent democracies that have socialized medicine.  You could come up with some measure of hunger or infant mortality, but do we believe that the only people who are poor in Europe are the ones that fall below such a low threshold?  So, where should I draw the line if I were to write the appendix that Gabriel suggests?  Using a relative measure openly and transparently acknowledges that each country’s context has its own standards of deprivation and inclusion.  Absolute measures are a bit of a masquerade in suggesting some agreed upon universal standard exists.

On the final issue of assumptions, do you really, really believe it is productive for sociologists to perpetually be debating this imaginary libertarian?  Are libertarians that serious of an intellectual presence on poverty issues?  The only ones that come to mind are Cox and Alm, who wrote that horrible book on how poor people today consume better than the middle class in the 1940s, etc. (_Myths of Rich and Poor_).  This is NOT a new argument – see Michael Harrington’s critique of it in _The Other America_.  As proponents of relative measures, we’d say: heck, if you want to play with comparisons, I could prove that there are NO poor people in the U.S. by the standard of the middle ages.  At some point, you have to decide if we measure deprivation according to some timeless and placeless standard or if we should define deprivation according to the prevailing standards of time and place.

Finally, do you really believe that if we just brought the right evidence to bear on a debate, sociologists could convince libertarians that “wow, I guess the welfare state works pretty good.”?  My view would be that we should first start with the best conceptualization and theory about what it means to be poor, and then second, evaluate existing explanations for poverty.  If one does so, I doubt you’re going to use an absolute measure of poverty.


Written by brayden king

September 21, 2007 at 4:25 pm

Posted in research, sociology

2 Responses

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  1. i just want to clarify that my post was not a critique per se of david’s work, which overall i found very impressive. basically, i said his work relies on a contentious (but ultimately valid) assumption and that it might be rhetorically effective to do a supplemental analysis that relaxes this assumption. that’s pretty much it. if i knew it would be taken as a critique i would have ditched the specifics and illustrated my argument against a hypothetical study.
    anyway, after david posted to the comments on the old thread, but before it gove moved up to the main page, i posted a clarification comment to the old thread here:



    September 21, 2007 at 4:58 pm

  2. […] response to gabriel’s “assumptions” « Says: September 21, 2007 at 4:25 […]


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