By Philip Bump, The Washington Post, March 7, 2017
“It’s much easier to deal with poverty if you can convince yourself that the impoverished brought it on themselves. Nearly everyone would concur that those who suffer from poverty through no fault of their own deserve support from others, either through nonprofit or public sector assistance. But if they’re poor because of their own bad decisions? They have to fend for themselves.
Coupled with guilt about the struggles of poor Americans, that instinct leads to an awkward place. There’s a psychological reward to looking for reasons that the poor aren’t really poor: It allows you to then more easily leave those less fortunate to their fate. For those disinclined to want the government to spend resources addressing poverty, the same reward is in effect. Drug-testing welfare recipients, stories about those on food stamps splurging on high-cost items, even reports from the Heritage Foundation pointing out that most poor people own televisions — all have the same net effect. To some extent, the poor are responsible for their own poverty, and therefore, it’s less urgent or unnecessary for us to be.
On Tuesday morning, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) appeared on CNN’s ‘New Day’ program to discuss the Republicans’ proposed alternative to the Affordable Care Act and made a variant on that argument. Asked by host Alisyn Camerota if people would lose coverage under the proposal, Chaffetz responded:
‘We are getting rid of the individual mandate. We are getting rid of those things that people said that they don’t want. And, you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest that in health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.’
Interestingly, the first part of Chaffetz’s claim was undercut by new polling from CNN itself. With its polling partner ORC, the network found that Americans are split on the mandate that individuals have health coverage. Fifty percent oppose the stipulation and 48 percent favor it. Even 45 percent of Republicans support keeping the mandate, which makes some sense given that that aspect of what we now call Obamacare evolved from a conservative proposal.
But it was Chaffetz’s next statement that curdled social media: ‘Rather than getting that new iPhone … maybe they should invest that in health care.’ Chaffetz doesn’t specifically say ‘the poor should make better choices,’ but the implication is clear. If you have only limited money to spend, you should spend it more wisely.
There are a lot of problems with the choice that Chaffetz presents. For one, an iPhone can be a one-time cost, while health-care spending is recurring. For another, the cost of a new phone pales in comparison to the cost of health care or health insurance. He intentionally uses ‘iPhone’ instead of cellphone, since a new, unsubsidized iPhone is at the pricier end of the cellphone cost scale, at about $700. But a year of health insurance for an individual is over $6,000. Put another way, an iPhone is only slightly more than a month of insurance. And that gap has increased. In 2014, the New York Times pointed out that the costs for consumer goods had decreased over time, while costs for things like health care have risen. [….]
Chaffetz is framing his choice on terms that position the poor as ignorant and wasteful so that he can bolster the case for revamping health care policy. But ‘iPhone’ is a particularly weird foil for that argument. A smartphone is not a luxury, it’s a critical tool of modern society. The newest iPhone isn’t critical, but some smartphone is, particularly in households without Internet access otherwise. Recognizing that necessity, the government provides subsidies for phone and Internet service to those who participate in welfare programs. This, of course, was the much-derided ‘Obamaphone’ program — actually called ‘Lifeline’ — which originated under President Reagan.” [The rest of the article is here.]
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The last paragraph begins to touch upon the topic of relative deprivation, a concept Chaffetz appears either not to know or sufficiently appreciate. An introduction to the notion of relative deprivation (or poverty) is provided here by Amartya Sen:
“As Adam Smith noted, the social capabilities may depend on a person’s relative income vis-à-vis those of others with whom he or she interacts. A person’s ability to be clothed appropriately (or to have other items of consumption good that have some visibility or social use), given the standards of the society in which he or she lives, may be crucial for the capability to mix with others in that society. This relates directly to relative income vis-à-vis the general level of prosperity in that community. A relative deprivation in terms of income can, thus, lead to absolute deprivation in terms of capabilities, and in this sense, the problems of poverty and inequality are closely interlinked. For example, being relatively poor in a rich country can be a great capability handicap, even when one’s absolute income is high by world standards. In a generally opulent country [like the U.S.], more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning. This foundational idea relates to a number of contemporary concerns, for example, ‘social exclusion.’”
As Sen goes on to note, with significance for our instant case, and building again on Smith’s insight, “the phenomenon of poverty in rich countries can be better understood through the perspective of relative deprivation.” So, for example [Smith cites the European day-laborer’s need, lest he feel ashamed, to wear a linen shirt while in public space, much like leather shoes had become a ‘necessary of life in England,’ for the ‘poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them.’], in our time and place,
“a person in New York may well suffer from poverty despite having a level of income that would make him immune from poverty in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. This is not only because the capabilities that are taken to be minimally basic tend to change as a country becomes richer, but also because even for the same level of capability, the needed minimal income may itself rise, along with others in the community. For example, in order to take part in the life of the community, or for children to be able to communicate with others in the same school, the bundle of commodities needed may include a telephone [or cellphone!], a television, a car, and so on, in New York, in a way that would not apply in Addis Ababa or in Dhaka… [although we might imagine ‘relative deprivation’ could play a role within these cities as well].” — Amartya Sen, “Conceptualizing and Measuring Poverty,” in David B. Grusky and Ravi Kanbur, eds., Poverty and Inequality (Stanford University Press, 2006): 30-46.