I regret to say that this book (obtained via Interlibrary Loan by the University Near Here from Wesleyan University) goes in the "Wish I'd Liked It Better" category. I had high hopes, as it emanates from the Cato Institute. I've noticed the author, Michael D. Tanner, writing a lot of good stuff in the past. But…
That's not to say it's bad, it's merely "not awful", could have been better. Poverty is not a burning issue in America, causing pols to me more vocal about what they'll do for (or, more likely, to) you. Still, if you walk around with open eyes, it's hard not to be concerned.
What causes American poverty? Guess what? It's complicated. Tanner discusses (some of) the usual culprits: racism, sexism, changing social attitudes, economic dislocation, etc. And his proposed reforms are conveniently listed:
- Reform the criminal justice system, end the war on drugs.
- Reform education system and stop the slide of the U.S. in education outcomes.
- Bring down the cost of housing.
- Make it easier for the poor to bank, save, borrow and invest–and start businesses.
- Increase economic growth and make it more inclusive.
All worthy endeavours, and the sub-reforms (e.g., reform of regulations, occupational licensing, zoning, etc.) are congenial to liberty-minded folks who are also compassionate toward the less well-off.
So what was not so good about the book?
- You'd think that Charles Murray would have made a more frequent
appearance in a libertarian-oriented book about poverty. But as far as Tanner seems to
be concerned, Murray's contribution started and ended with 1984's Losing
Ground. But The Bell Curve (1994) described a significant correlation
between intelligence and poverty. And Coming Apart (2012) went
into more detail on "assortive mating"; to the extent that IQ is
heritable, the haves and the have-nots tend to procreate with each
other, and the correlation propagates into the likely future.
But it's not just (specifically) Murray, the issue of intelligence is, as near as I can tell, entirely absent from Tanner's book. OK, so maybe Tanner thinks it's unimportant. But (still) we're owed at least a cursory dismissal of why he thinks it's unimportant.
Also largely absent is Thomas Sowell. His insight that statistical
disparities between groups need not, and often are not the result
of invidious discrimination goes unmentioned. And Tanner usually assumes
the worst, especially in his discussion of criminal justice. (Yes,
African-Americans are jailed out of proportion to their presence in the
popultion. But they also commit more crime,)
Similarly, the issue of immigration is (as near as I can tell) MIA in
Tanner's book. Specifically, low-skilled immigration. Tanner is
eloquent on the damage that minimum wage laws do to the poor: they
literally make it illegal to hire someone whose value to the
employer might not make economic sense.
So, what about an increased supply of low-skill labor? What does that do to the poor job-seeker?
Again, Tanner might not find this important. But (again) not mentioning it at all is difficult to excuse.
Finally, a quibble: in a mostly-good discussion of the need to provide
financial/banking services to the poor, Tanner includes this bit of
For instance, according to the Federal Reserve, 46 percent of adults say they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.
It's not that simple, and (guess what) I found a more nuanced discussion on the Cato blog (because this was also a talking point of presidential ex-candidate John Hickenlooper): Is it True that 40% of Americans Can't Handle a $400 Emergency Expense? Asked and answered by Alan Reynolds:
The question was about how people would choose to pay a $400 “emergency expense” — not whether or not they could pay it out of savings (or checking) if they wanted to. Respondents were also free to choose more than one way of paying the extra $400 (“please selects [sic] all that apply”), so the answers add up [to] 143% rather than 100%. Even if 100% said they could pay an extra $400 with cash, there could still be more than 40% who would choose a different method.
It turns out that 86% would pay cash or charge it and then pay off the bill at the next statement (many consumers autopay credit card bills from checking accounts). Some (11%) said they might borrow some or all of it from a friend or family member, but that probably means a spouse or parent in most cases (respondents included full-time students).
I.e., Tanner either should have reported this more carefully, or left it out. This sloppiness says that there may be problems in some of those other footnotes and citations as well.
Bottom line: not awful. Could have, and should have, been much better.