Mobilizing the Poor and Other Delusions

Yesterday a Democratic friend of mine emailed me in part: “There is a big constituency of poor people who are just not making it at all.” This is one of the American Left’s conventional dogmas — that there is some vast ocean of descamisados out there waiting to be mobilized into a political force that will sweep away all those nasty uncaring conservatives.

I laugh when I hear or read things like this, because — unlike most Americans — I know what real poverty looks like. I have lived in poor countries. I’ve seen the shantytowns that surround Caracas and the acres of concrete Stalinist shitboxes that ring Eastern European cities; I’ve played scoppa with rural peasants in Southern Italy who are worn out from toil at forty.

We have nothing like that here. Our poor people are fat. They have too much to eat. They have indoor plumbing and houses and cars and televisions. Real poverty no longer exists in the U.S. at any level above statistical noise, and hasn’t since civilization reached the last pockets of the Appalachians during my childhood.

This has political consequences. Mainly, that you can’t get American ‘poor’ people angry enough about their economic situation to make a voting bloc or a movement out of them. In fact, in the U.S. the poor are more conservative than the rich. American lefties think this is because the poor suffer from anti-revolutionary false consciousness, but this is exactly the kind of patronizing piffle that just lost lefties the 2004 elections. The truth is that in their calculus of their own interests, other things are more important to the American poor than bringing down the bloated plutocrats. In this particular election, those other things included supporting the liberation of Iraq and opposing gay marriage.

Believing that poverty is a live political issue is a form of self-delusion by elite liberals for which conservatives should be very grateful — it leads liberals into vast wastes of effort. But it isn’t just liberals who get taken in. A conservative friend who was in on the email discussion said to me, in effect, “But what about the homeless?”. His argument was that homeless people are America’s ‘real’ poor, and he has a point. The trouble with taking that argument any further is that there are too few homeless people to have any effect on politics other than as an emotive issue that wealthy white activists can flog to make themselves feel more virtuous.

And there will never be a politically significant homeless population in the U.S., for simple and obvious climactic reasons. Over much of the U.S., if you can’t find shelter, winter exposure will kill you fairly quickly. On the coasts you need to be south of about latitude 40 for survivability. The winter-kill zone reaches further south in mid-continent. There’s a summer-kill zone, too, that includes a lot of the Southwest.

If you can’t pay for a roof over your head, you have either build one or borrow one somewhere that the owners aren’t around to object. Wigwams would be conspicuous even if homeless people knew enough woodscraft to build them, so building is largely out. In general, finding a sheltered space to sleep where nobody will hassle you is quite difficult outside of large cities and not easy even inside them.

To check this theory, I went and looked for homeless population counts on the web. Leaving out the most obvious noise — figures pulled out of thin air by advocacy organizations with a drive to inflate them — I found almost no hard numbers.

Yes, you get people throwing around figures in the two million range. They’re bullshit. If we had that many homeless it would have obvious consequences we’re not seeing. Like, corpses littering the streets of Philadelphia on January mornings.

One reference said San Francisco, which has a reputation for a particularly large and visible homeless population, counted 4,535 in December 2003. In 2003, the New York city government estimated 1,560 people sleeping on the streets in Manhattan (at latitude 41 Manhattan is well into the winter-kill zone). I recall Philadelphia counting 3,500 a few years back. That’s numbers 1, 14 and 5 of the nation’s fifteen largest cities by population. Extrapolating from these, I’d bet the nationwide homeless count is almost certainly less than 40K, probably less than 20K.

Which brings me back to my original contention that real poverty is statistical noise in the U.S. Even if the homeless population were an order of magnitude larger than I’m estimating, you cannot build a political base out of 400K people in a nation of 300 million. There’s no electoral traction in one tenth of one percent, especially when most of the rest of the country has more or less correctly written off the homeless as largely being composed of addicts and the mentally ill.

Americans aren’t stupid. They know there has been genuine, large-scale poverty in this country’s relatively recent past — the folk memory of the Great Depression is still with us. They know there are lots of places in the world where the plight of the poor is still a genuine problem today. But that contrast only makes the posturing of today’s self-designated advocates for the American “poor” look more like a form of careerism, moral vanity or one-upmanship. Which, in most cases, is exactly what it is.

UPDATE: Supporting evidence for the nonexistence of real poverty in the U.S. here. Some commenters pointed out that my estimate of homelesness may be low because two of my three baseline cities are in the winter-kill zone. The main point, though, is that the homeless population is not within an order of magnitude of the numbers needed to have an an electoral impact.


  1. Let’s see… We grant charitable organizations tax exemption so they can deal with various issues, including poverty. We grant tax deductions for contributions to those charities. Even without hard numbers, I’d guess that there is a significant flow of funds.

    Now, I’d like to know specific data on these funds and the uses. I cannot accept blindly that there is not enough funding and that added contributions from government are required.

  2. yes the poor have too much to eat.
    Too much *crap* to eat. Too much McDonalds and subsidized sugar snacks.
    And you seem to conflate the poor with the intolerantly religious.

  3. Conservatives should own the lower economic classes these days.

    They have a place to live, plenty to eat, and a surprising number of modern conveniences. They’d be pretty well set if it wasn’t for the fact that thugs keep infesting their neighborhoods.

    Criminal activity has been concentrated in cheap neighborhoods for quite a while now, and unlike the wealthy, they can’t buy their way into neighborhoods that actually get adequate protection.

    When conservatives a couple of decades back advocated doing something about the skyrocketing crime rate, they were called racists! When the ones most victimized by crime are poor minorities. And our friends on the left got away with it, blocked tougher sentencing for years, and got a lot of the people they supposedly care about killed.

    If the right would push for dropping Prohibition, cracking down on violent crime, and letting people live safely in cheap neighborhoods, the Democratic Party as we know it would be finished.


    I think the Democrats will end up being owned by these losers, the M Mooreification will continue

    These commie agitprops ) ignore the anarhist thugs for now) inly “care” about the poor in so much as to usefullness for pushing the bloodstained planks from the communist manifesto

    And because they are relentless in your face demaniding maniacs and than the fact that they are almost half of the Democrat party, I cannot see how they can rid themselves of the Pelosi and chomsky kooks without who they would not have the voters to win any office anywhere now.

    As for those Anarchists, man Anarchy is not freedom and freedom is not Anarchy, Even the god of this blog Eric, would tell you (i think) that his (and mine) idea of Freedom has laws, it has courts and institutions, one of the primary aims to prevent predation on the weak, deter and punish for theft and and other trespass agaisnt the equal right of your fellow man.

    But look at those anarchist kooks, well i guess it follows, they march right along with the others, with one thing in common, a critical grok deficit.

  5. Some comments:

    About there being no real poverty in the US: totally agree. I’m from India, and out there poverty means “having so little to eat that your ribs are sticking out”.

    On a related note, I’ve been in the US 3 months, and I still haven’t gotten used to the enormous waste of energy in every aspect of American life (like ridiculously oversized cars). Oh well, when you run out of oil you can always invade another country I suppose.

    The poor are more conservative – this one is a truism in India, and I suspected that it would be true in America as well, and indeed it is. A few days back Tanenbaum posted a link to some study showing just such a correlation. The poor are also more likely to be evangelicals. Similarly, there is a very strong correlation between urban areas and Kerry voters. DC voted 90-10 for Kerry.

    I doubt if democrats alone are deluded about poverty. Both sides are in delusion, but it hurts only the democrats.

    On the topic of homelessness, I was wondering if winter exposure is the reason why you have social democratic type governments in Northern Europe, Canada etc, where homelessness means immediate death.

    P.S: the comment posting script you’re using is horrible.

  6. My friend told me (and I haven’t verified this) that the population of DC is “all politicians and black people”

    Theoretically, that is why Kerry won DC 90-10, not because it is a particularly urban center.


  7. Having grown up in Eastern Europe, I’ve been making this argument for quite some time. I have been homeless in this country for short stretches of time, and at no time was I ever in straits as dire as a real poor person. Ever. It’s a myth, a feint, a straw man.

  8. John: no, I don’t view it from that perspective. I believe that peace comes from not using violence to interfere with peaceful relations between people (even if those relations do not reflect equal power). I believe that peace comes from SOLELY using violence to stop greater violence. Clearly you believe something else. Brings to mind the old saw about “fucking for virginity”.

  9. “There you go. See, there is a fundamental problem with pure capitalism. People work, and they are not paid for the value of their work.”

    Of course they’re paid for the value of their work.

    “The difference between the value and what they are paid is profit, which always goes upward to individuals that did not earn the money, at least in the sense of a tangible contribution to society.”

    Nonsense. Profit is the difference between the value of what is produced and the cost of producing it. The people who figure out the right way to take labor and capital and use it to make something that is worth more than the value of the labor and capital that went into it earn that profit.

    There’s more to work than just using your muscles, and the people who do other kinds of work are earning their pay.

    “You can say, silence them, take away their right to organize and speak freely. Then you wouldn’t really have a legitimate government, though, and you could only maintain power by force, something our founding fathers saw ahead of time.”

    No one wants to take away their right to speak or to organize. But a legitimate government will damn well take away any right they claim to have to commit or threaten violence to discourage competitors from offering a better deal than any labor cartels they organize.

    “As soon as we stop advocating the rights of workers (whether they are starving or not), they will begin to lose everything they have except what they need to serve those with capital, because the capital becomes the only way they have of sustaining their life.”

    Capital has been the only way they have of sustaining the life they enjoy, not because of anyone’s rights or lack thereof, but because of the laws of physics that dictate that machines powered by high-density fuel will always do more brute-force work than a human being powered by carbohydrates.

    “After a certain point, when the illegitimacy is clear to all, some type of revolution, violent or not, is better than the alternative. ”

    But if workers revolt based on the idea that they have the right to take other people’s money by force rather than trade for it, the government that opposes them is far more legitimate than a government that forces us to give in to their extortion, and using any means necessary to put down the rebellion is better than the alternative.

  10. I brought the example of revolution in simply to show why we have representation for everyone in America, not just those with enough money to influence politics. Clearly, we don’t have children working 70 hour weeks in coal mines. As I said, we have a government that actually does represent its people, and that is exactly what Eric is arguing against, unfortunately through a political fiction. He’s a self-described libertarian, and I think some logical synapses are misfiring at the idea that some of us are using our constitutional freedoms to take away freedom in the market. If we followed Eric’s advice, though, revolution would not result (not in America). If the Democrats came out and said they were no longer in support of raising the minimum wage, affirmitive action, a progressive federal income tax, etc., they’d just implode and split into factions. I’m not even saying I agree with those things; I’m just stating reality.

    My point is, you don’t have to be starving to want economic redistribution and regulation, things on the Democratic platform. Like it or not, Democrats polled better than Republicans on economic issues. (didn’t they? Democratic and Republican pollsters on CSPAN both claimed they did.)

    I think, disturbingly, Bush really did win on values. Again, the polls back me up. Here is my theory to explain this. After 9/11, people turned to their values, which is what people do in times of crisis. Our values are the most personal and defining part of who we are. Unfortunately, while they can help heal us individually, they cannot bring us together as a whole. Religious freedom is not simply something our government gives us because it feels nice. It’s what allows the unity of the body politic in America, the very thing that gives the people sovereignty and lends legitimacy to our government, whose sole purpose in America is to execute the laws of the people on the people.

    If you’ve watched videos of what happened after 9/11, you’ve seen incredible displays of altruism as well as angry political arguments in the parks. People were crying, hugging, fighting, and just going back to their basic values. The type of leader you need in that situation is, first of all, one who is strong, and I think Bush fit the bill. However, to weave together that sense of community and all those beautiful acts of altruism in the years to come, you would have needed so much more than a common enemy. Terrorism is not a substantive enough issue to rally around, nor is any particular issue. Unfortunately, our bomber-jacket-wearing, spitball-hurling, gentleman-C earning fratboy president just didn’t have that degree of aptitude for governing. I wouldn’t either, nor would all but one or two in a million, and I fully admit that. The type of skill required to keep America working together through these last four years would have been incredible, and watching someone do it would have been a beautiful lesson in governing. We didn’t witness

  11. Sorry for the long posts… I’m trying not to ramble, but I’ve been thinking about exactly these issues for the past few days, just like everyone else.

  12. Oy, Eric, shouldn’t you be writing a long essay about political bloggers engineering new realities with tight feedback loops of mutual consensus? I’m sure you could come up with a snappy title, like “The New Truth: Consensual Reality In The Blogosphere”, only better.

    Oh, bollocks to it, this is boring. You haven’t even admitted you voted for Bush. What a disappointment.

  13. In 2003, the Census Bureau reported that 35.9 million persons “lived in poverty”.

    What the report showed, in part:

    – Forty-six percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and porch or patio.

    – Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning.

    – Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

    – The average poor American has more living space than the average (i.e. not poor) individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other European cities.

    – Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

    – Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television. Over half own two or more color televisions.

    – Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

    – Seventy-three percent own a microwave oven, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

    “Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family isn’t hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, activists and politicians.”

    Up until 4 months ago, I didn’t own a DVD player. I still don’t have cable TV, own just a single TV set and live in a house that doesn’t have more than two rooms per person. All this by choice. That is, unless there’s some government cash coming my way to help me with my “poverty”. In that case, I’m crying “poor”. :)


  14. Even if the homeless were significant in number, you need an address to register to vote. The homeless are a political non-issue. You don’t need 890 words to prove that.

  15. Eric, your homeless figures are wrong. You extrapolate your figures from those provided by Manhattan and Philidelphia; both cities are far into your “winter kill zone”. Southern cities have *much* higher homeless populations. For example, you can often find people sleeping in steet-level doorways or under bridges along Houston’s many bayous. And I do mean often. If you go downtown, you will see dozens of such people and for every one you see, there are many, many more. While I have no hard figures, you can bet that nearly every southern city has similar homeless populations.

  16. ESR, just to correct your misconceptions: there are a lot of homeless people in New York City. Although NYC is within winter-kill zone, homeless survive in and around subway. Every A-train car has at least one sleeping homeless person during the winter at 4AM – I know because I live near the last stop. Also, they make tents of garbage bags tetherrd above subway ventilation meshes, so the warm air pressure from below keeps the “tent” up.

    As you correctly noted, we are very affluent country, and very many homeless people can be seen in a line in front of the shelter on 165th Street. You probably would not count them as homeless, since they have a roof above their heads. But none the less, they are homeless as the shelter is not guaranteed and they might not elect to have the permanent residence in it.

    Most (all?) of them have mental problems, have no telephone number or permanent address. It is impossible (maybe impractical) to organize them to vote, far less to persuade them to vote for a certain candidate.

  17. Well, yes, there are plenty of homeless even in Boston. The main question is legislation, which merely makes their presence invisible. There are homeless in Buffalo, and they sleep in the library to keep warm at night. They aren’t going to be a political force, but empathy for them might, and people who are on the verge of becoming homeless are certainly a force.

  18. Greg — that’s what happens when “poor” status is determined the household’s income, rather than the household’s possessions.

    I was “poor” for 22 years, until I graduated college and my income went above the “poverty line”. (Of course, I wasn’t counted by myself either for any of those years; I was a dependent of my parents. But still.)

  19. American poverty is ignorance…ignorance about what happens in the rest of the world. As a foreigner, I was able to see CNN and a local (Chile) news channel when the war started. I was very surprised about how filtered is the information in the USA.

    Aside, I can’t forget my colleague, an american software engineer, who told me that Spain is located in south america. He is not “poor”, he owns a pretty SUV and lives in a beautiful house in San Diego, but definitively he needs to win the “information and knowledge” lottery.

  20. I love this post! It’s interesting to me that there isn’t any data: yet there is so much anecdotal evidence that there is such an enormous problem. I do feel somewhat of pity, since I think many homeless are truly in mental pain, though I also believe in American human compassion.

    As long as we are outwards focussed on terrorism, we will not pay much attention to thing fat “poor” people that need more food (I mean, cheap staples are available, and in the past when food drives have come up I have thought to donate 100lb sacks of beans, but realized this would just inflame angers of the helpers I work with, and insult those who thought they were helping).

    The press has intentionally dumbed down the electorate with anecdotes, that somehow the experience of one person (Pauli Class, whatever) is suddenly the force for massive change and policy. The electorate, the people, would be better served by focussing on real problems, such as why students perform so poorly. Good luck on this, though.

    Only because we are outwards focussed do these thing seem silly. When you see a man and woman jumping hand in hand from the twin towers do you realize how insulated we have become from fundamental issues, instead of ridiculous discussions such as whether sex change operations are more important than life saving heart surgery (San Francisco). So, if the fairy tale days of the 90’s or 20’s or 80’s return, so too will this silliness.

    I also believe that the race card is just about spent. Al Gores “Make sure you vote early so that they have enough time to count your vote” to the blacks is just about over. This country is facing real problems, from the twin deficits which will soon come home to roost, to an enemy that wants to control our lifeblood of oil by killing us.

    I worry, though, that it is all too late. I hear that Chinese and Oil producing countries are selling dollars. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the years to come, and whether the US has enough true friends in this weakened condition, to endure or whether we will sink into a European quagmire as our super powers are just not so relevent anymore, and the socialist “everyones the same” wins by having pulled us all down.

    Ramble ramble. The future is hard to predict.

  21. Of the statistics I have seen, the largest group of “poor” are those between the ages of 17 to 23. Yes, those just entering the workforce with only a highschool education and less, and college students. It’s a real shame that those two groups don’t pull down 40k+ salaries, but I do not consider them “poor” or disadvantaged.

  22. Another point concerning earnings – If you look at resources like the CIA world factbook – you will see fields like “Household Earnings” – which makes sense, you can then understand a “households” puchasing or spending potential. Therefore, by definition, in countries and cultures where women (in the US, typically about half the earning potential of a household) are either forbidden to work, or even hampered in their education, the earning potential of the household is greatly curtailed. Probably one of the greastest reasons for the strength of the US economy was the cultural shift of sending women into the workforce that started during WWII.

  23. Eric —

    Regarding your homeless figures. According to the Census Bureau, the American population in emergency and transitional shelters was 178,638 in 1990 and 170,706 in 2000.

    This confirms your view that homeless people are too small a fraction of the US population to be worth courting for a political party. It also indicates that your estimates are off by almost an number of magnitude, and not much better than the 2 million figures you correctly identified as “bullshit”.

  24. Today’s paper informs me there are 300,000 homeless _veterans_ in the US – 18,000 in the Chicago area. Do you think that might be just a little high?

  25. Oh, right. FoxNews is an authoritative source on “compassionate” republican issues such as poverty and homelessnes. I am not sure if the article is correct on numbers or not (Fox is usually as wrong with the numbers as reasonably possible) but here are the obvious falacies of the article:

    – “30 years ago, only 36% of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.” Which is of course due to cheap Chinese ACs, not due to Americans getting richer in the last 30 years. Mobile phones used to cost $1000’s 30 years ago.

    – “The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna…”. And probably more than an average millionaire has in Manhattan (1BR apt = $1million). U.S. cities such as New York, and European cities such as Vienna, have much much much smaller apartments than the size of houses built in wide open spaces of Oregon. Why not compare living space of a bedouin in Gobi desert to a studio apartment on Upper East Side?

    – “Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car” … because they would not be able to make a living otherwise. While cities and Europe allow poor people to commute by public transportation, necessity for car spendig IS one if the reasons for poverty in the US.

    – “78% have a VCR or DVD player … 73% own a microwave oven…97% of poor households have a color television…” which costs $80 at BestBuy, or about one day worth of food for a family. Unless they found the TV thrown out in garbage or bought in on yard sale. Realistically, it is easy to save $1 a day and buy a TV in a couple of months. These are indecent attempts of using cheap consumer items in order to show how the poor have a lot.

    – “78% have a VCR or DVD player; 62% have cable or satellite TV reception.” Now this is a real expense: cable is a recurring expense anually more expensive than VCR, DVD, TV, AC, stove, refrigerator, and microvawe combined!

    You can also see poor teenagers that wear $150 sneakers. The reason they buy Nike’s and pay for the cable is that:
    1 – if they saved that money, it would take them about 1000 years to buy a house or start a business
    2 – they use entertainment as an escape from the bleak prospects of a $5/hour burger flipper

    It is true that American poor are not nearly as poor as elswhere in the world. But there are poor people: just read excerpts from the book “Nickled and Dimed”. It is easy not to see them while sitting in a fenced neighborhood. Let’s start thinking instead of parroting FoxNews headlines.

  26. Pingback: LazaX
  27. Laza writes: “‘Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car’ … because they would not be able to make a living otherwise.”

    Thank you, Laza, for breaking the monotony of this previously mirthless day.

  28. Aside from a few lunatics, nobody seriouslty involved in American politics today really believes the homeless constitute a significant voting block. Democratic propaganda on the issue isn’t designed to mobilize some imagined army of homeless voters. It’s designed to emotionally manipulate the gullible middle class, and has been for at least fifteen years (as long as I’ve been paying attention). If they were really trying to reach the homeless, they’d concentrate on media other than television. (Few truely homeless people have access to the insipid whining of the network newscasts.)

  29. Oh Dear! Please, ESR and others: poverty is relative! If you are scared to your bones that you might not be able to pay the mortgage of your house, you feel poor, even if it is a 500 square meters house. Rich means safe. Poor mean unsafe, no matter how much money or food you have. This is what Marx said: proletarian does not mean some stinking and poor blue collar with a big hammer. Proletarian simply means people who are not safe, because them whim of their employers can make them unemployed.

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