Monday, April 07, 2008

Does analyzing poverty require a new economics?

I hate economics. I did very well in it in high school, and when forced to deal with it in college. But I simply hate dealing with it. Mostly because economists want us to treat it like a science - on the order of physics or chemistry - when in actuality it is an extension of psychology. Economists hate it when I say it, but they know it is true.

One problem which has defied classical economic analysis is poverty. Why do people who are poor tend to stay poor and have children who stay poor? This despite the many counterexamples from American society where people have "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps." Now, one economist claims to have the answer. For the rich, economics is all about managing scarcity. For the poor, it is all about dealing with the most urgent problem first, which may or may have anything to do with scarcity.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we're far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. Karelis's name for goods that reduce or salve these sort of burdens is "relievers."

Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn't have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.
I am not sure I buy the argument exactly, but it certainly forces us to take a new look at poverty.

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