A reminder of America’s value to the huddled masses on Independence Day.

If you’re interested in some good Independence Day listening that reminds you indirectly of the innate goodness of the American project, give a listen to Russ Roberts’s interview of University of Chicago Economist Bruce Meyer, who specializes in the study of poverty.  As the episode summary says, the “conversation also addresses broader challenges around measuring mobility and the American Dream.”

In a nutshell, much of the headline-grabbing research proclaiming the problem of poverty in the United States overcounts by orders of magnitude.  Putting aside hard cases where something is going on that isn’t exactly economic (including many of the factors behind homelessness), poverty is almost entirely a relative phenomenon in our country.  That is, poverty means not being as wealthy as somebody else.

I wouldn’t say it’s a rousing conversation, but it drives home an important point.  As Meyers says:

I think that there is a tendency in the profession to be uncomfortable reporting good news. That, you seem more serious if you’re reporting bad news.

So, people who report good news are taken to be Pollyannas and ignoring the bad things that are going on around them. But, I think there is a lot of things that have improved over time. And, we need to report things accurately and indicate what has improved and what hasn’t. And, the material wellbeing of those at the bottom has dramatically improved over time. And that’s indicated by looking at consumption. It’s indicated by looking at income that’s corrected for under-reporting. It’s indicated by looking at the quality of housing people are living in, which is a very clear and objective measure of how well-off people are.

We live in a fantastic country that continues to provide unprecedented opportunity for an enormous number of people.  No system is perfect, but in striving for perfection, our first priority should be not undermining what we’ve done so right for so long.


Featured image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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