Johnathan Cohn at the Huffington Post wrote this article titled “Yet Another Conservative Argument About Poverty Appears To Be Wrong.” It is turning up as one of the most shared today, so you may have come across it. The conservative argument that it attempts to discredit is that America’s poor are better off than the poor of the rest of the world, and in fact compare well with average people in other developed countries. Not so says Cohn, a working study by a couple of academics shows that many American poor may well have bigger houses and more appliances than poor elsewhere, but they are no better in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, murder rates, and imprisonment rates than the average person in a number of developing and third world nations, like Rwanda and Mexico.
No doubt this is all true, but does it really undermine the conservative argument? I think not. While America’s poor do not have access to the generous safety nets of Europe, they certainly have more access to health care than the people of Rwanda or Mexico. So why isn’t WIC and Medicaid helping our poor live longer than your average Mongolian? I suspect it has to do with America’s commanding lead in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Our poor aren’t dying young because their health care is no better than the average Rwandan’s, it is because they eat more and exercise less. If America’s poor were delivered the same benefits as there European counterparts, would they exercise more and eat less? What are they being given in England or Germany that encourages better health? Could it be a cultural issue not related to the amount of benefits, because even well to do Americans are obese at rates above the people of Asia and Europe’s wealthy nations.
And while life expectancy might be one good measure of affluence, how many people would be willing to forsake their material comforts and live their lives in a much smaller house with no phone, TV, computer, car, etc. for a chance to live an extra five or ten years eating a daily diet of beans and rice with no meat? I mean you can do it now, but not to many are taking it. Maybe you need a little fun in life to make it worth while. Would you want to live a hundred years as an average Rwandan or 30 years as John Belushi?
Another factoid they present is that our poor are so likely to spend time in prison. True enough, but what is unnoted is that many of the nations with murder rates matching our poor also have vastly lower incarceration rates. I wonder if Brazil or Columbia might have lower rates of murder if more of its criminals were behind bars. I mean really, if our prisoners were out on the street, I’m not sure we would get much improvement in the quality of life of the poor not in prison.
It still stands that if your poor in America, your better off than the poor just about anywhere else if you choose to use the discipline to eat right and exercise, but hell if you could discipline your self you might not be poor to begin with.