Monday, December 12, 2011

Kling on Lerman

Arnold Kling discusses some recent posts by my Urban Institute colleague and American University professor, Bob Lerman (here and here). The posts are on the new poverty measures and the concept of "poverty" as a relative concept. This seems to bother Kling - it doesn't bother me quite as much, perhaps because I've never taken talk of "ending poverty" seriously. Kling is of course right - if poverty is a relative measure, then we can never "end" it. But if poverty is an absolute measure, all you need to do to "end" it is wait a little while and let economic growth do its work. Do we think there's nothing we'd like to improve in people's lives (in this country) just because "absolute" poverty as we knew it previously is mostly done with? Clearly not. Our sense of deprivation is relative, so our measure of it ought to be as well. It seems to me the question "are we above subsistence?" sets the bar way too low. Anyway - aside from the relative/absolute measure issues that Kling talks about, Bob goes into a lot of interesting details about the specific factors that have changed and whether they make sense.

I saw Bob recently and he informed me he's making me a co-author on a paper on apprenticeship, because he pulled in a lot of the work I did last year on long-term care apprenticeships - so I may see that, contribute more to it, and have updates to share soon. Bob is a labor economist that does a lot with human capital investments, so I imagine I'm going to continue to work with him and perhaps have him on my dissertation committee.


  1. Speaking of poverty, income, and labour economics, I'd like to point out that there are articles by econophysicists that deal with such things and related matters.

  2. Any definition of poverty that isn't somehow grounded in envy or the desire to have statistics look a certain way is absolute. If you care about people's needs, which is the only real justifiable reason for caring about poverty at all, then that is an absolute measure. The ability of nations to deal with poverty is defined by how many people are starving; otherwise you are quite literally moving the goalposts.

  3. Well it's moving the goal posts if the absolute measure is the right measure. If it's not the right measure, then the absolute measure is guilty of not moving the goal posts when they should be moved.

    I think we can have the flexibility to let people care about different things, and I don't think you have to base a relative understanding of deprivation in envy. I think what's obvious is most people don't just care about absolute standards of living.


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