Do the Poor Remain Poor?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously took to the House floor last week to quibble over the origins of the old maxim about “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.”  “You know this idea, this metaphor of a bootstrap started off as a joke,” she said.  “Because it’s physically impossible to lift yourself up by a bootstrap, by your shoelaces.  It’s physically impossible!”

She obviously believes this to be some sort of profound observation, but perhaps someone could have taken the time to explain to her that the difficulty of the physical act is kind of the point of the metaphor.  According to Writing Explained, the “expression originated in the 1800s,” and “refers to the ability of a person to lift himself or herself up by pulling on the laces of his or her boots.  Of course, this is impossible, so in order to do it would take very hard work.” [emphasis added]

It’s always a lot of fun when Sandy O makes a ditzy spectacle of herself, though, this time attempting to literally dissect and discredit a traditional metaphor that promotes hard work, persistence, and the obvious individual empowerment that comes with both of those virtues.  Nonetheless, her message was heard loud and clear -- poor Americans shouldn’t be expected to be able to care for themselves, no matter how hard they work or struggle to succeed, because the free market and the wealthy class have stacked the deck against them.  That’s why we need the federal government to step in and forcibly equalize economic outcomes for everyone, as she and her radical socialist cohorts routinely demand.

But is it really likely that individuals in poverty today will be trapped there forever if the government doesn’t intercede?  And in particular, are the young people she’s hoping to attract to the Democratic tent (nearly 50% of those considered to be in poverty are age 18-24) with this Marxist messaging likelier to remain in poverty forever, or will they do what Sandy believes to be impossible -- that is, climb out of poverty using their bootstraps and the ladder of America’s free enterprise system?

Marxists (many of whom prefer being called “Democratic Socialists” these days) like Ocasio-Cortez love to present this issue of income inequality and class struggle as if the individuals involved were firmly established pieces, as on a chessboard -- “the poor” against “the rich.”  They present a snapshot of today’s economic landscape, and suggest that those individuals on either side of this divide will forever be at war with the other until one side wins this zero-sum class war.

This is simply not true. There is a tremendous flaw in this worldview which the esteemed economist Thomas Sowell  in his latest bookDiscrimination and Disparities calls an “error of omission.” He refers to this particular Marxist ruse as the purposeful omission of the “time dimension” in economic observations:

Calling people in particular income brackets “the poor” or “the rich” implicitly assumes that they are enduring residents in those brackets, when in fact most Americans do not stay in the same income quintile from one decade to the next.

“[O]ur concern is for the fate of flesh-and-blood human beings, not the fate of abstract statistical categories,” Sowell writes.  He references a University of Michigan study that “followed a given set of working Americans from 1975 to 1991,” and it “found that 95 percent of the people initially in the bottom 20 percent were no longer there at the end of that period.”

In 1991, there was still an “abstract statistical category” comprising the bottom 20 percent of income earners in America, obviously.  But what is equally obvious is that only an extreme few of the individuals observed by the study that began in 1975 still existed in that category in 1991. 

“Since 5 percent of 20 percent is one percent,” Sowell continues, “[s]tatements about how the income of “the poor” fared during those years would only apply to one percent of the people” who happened to remain in the bottom quintile throughout those years.  And beyond all of that, “29 percent of those initially in the bottom quintile rose all the way to the top quintile,” writes Sowell.

Therefore, contrary to the contention of Marxists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it should be obvious that “the poor” certainly do not stay poor or “get poorer” in America, when one considers this time dimension.  Quite the opposite, according to statistical findings, it is roughly six times more likely for “the poor” to find themselves among top quintile of income earners at some point in their lives than to remain poor or become poorer. 

Think about that for a moment.  As a young American, whether you were a working college student or a less-skilled worker than you are today, you were likely not earning a strong income, and perhaps you were among the bottom 20% of income earners in America. But the data suggest that the odds are 99% in favor of you not having remained there over time.

In fact, the odds are firmly in favor of your fortune having completely reversed, and that you may now, or may at some time in the future, achieve an income that could be included in the top 20% of incomes in America.  Sowell references another study by the Treasury Department, “Income Mobility in the U.S. from 1996 to 2005,” which interestingly found that “[a]t some point between the ages of 25 and 60, over three quarters of the population will find themselves in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.”

“For most Americans in other quintiles to envy or resent those in the top quintile,” Sowell writes, “would mean envying or resenting themselves, as they will be in later years.” 

As time passes, individuals in the bottom income quintile will age, and exit that statistical category, but new young people entering the workforce will enter it and supplant their position there.  But there is little suggesting that they will remain there long, either.  If they follow the model of many generations past, they will only be passing through that lowest level of income achievement until, through hard work and persistence, their economic circumstances would also improve, and they will also exit that “abstract statistical category.” 

But no matter how much time passes in America and this cycle plays out, no matter how great economic circumstances become, and no matter how much unemployment and general impoverishment are reduced and quality of life generally improves, this ongoing replacement of young and inexperienced workers is the one thing that Marxist social engineers can count on in their quest to wage their obligatory and perpetual economic class war.

Indeed, they rely on it.  In case you haven’t noticed, Bernie Sanders isn’t courting the same young socialists he courted in the 1980s, as he honeymooned in the Soviet Union and touted the virtues of government breadlines over the American free enterprise system.  Those once-young Americans have mostly grown up, started families, created thriving businesses, and worked hard to became more successful without relying on government handouts. 

Bernie’s less interested in those individuals nowadays, you’ll notice.  No, he’s courting the same massive bloc of young people that Ocasio-Cortez is courting, who are currently more interested in his promises of government redistribution to equalize economic outcomes. Unsurprisingly, he seems to have large swathes of support among them.

But if we are able to protect the free enterprise system as the defining feature of the American economy, and preserve the economic liberty provided by it, two things will be certain -- the youth of today will become less young, and they will become more successful.  And when they don’t need the government anymore, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will become less interested in them, and begin making similar promises to their kids and grandkids.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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