THE BOTTOM FIFTH

I was going to expound on Mr. Romney’s speech, until I realized that 13 gazillion people are going to do the same thing in the next few days and weeks, and I don’t really have anything to add that somebody, or some tens of somebodies, isn’t already going to say. (At least, not yet—I’m waiting till after the Democratic convention to see whether Mr. Romney will get into any specifics in his plan to save the country).

In the meantime, I’m going to talk about the bottom quintile. The fifth quintile are those people who are the opposite of the 1%. We operate on a base ten system, and our minds naturally gravitate toward 5’s and 10’s. The population is often divided into fifths, based on income. The fifth quintile folks were born at the bottom of the barrel, or got dumped there after divorce, death in the family, or some other tragedy. This being the United States, land of opportunity, and supposed upward mobility, my questions are: do these people have a shot at climbing (or reclimbing) the ladder of success into at least the fourth quintile, and, does who is running the country make a difference to their chances?

DSCN0499Of course, we all know that there will always be a fifth quintile. If you divide the world into pieces based on income, someone by definition will always have to be in the lowest category, just as someone will always be in the top category. However, having a bottom quintile does not have to mean that those encased in its boundaries must abide in abject poverty. I want to know whether, and how, the policies and actions of the federal government affect people’s ability to move up—or their tendency to fall back down. Is Mr. Romney correct in prophesying that “a rising tide lifts all boats”? Or is Mr. Obama’s idea to build from the middle the cure for poverty? Or do neither of them have any affect at all on mobility, and there is some other force at work here?

It is extremely difficult to answer questions like these, because they are so complicated. eWhat we take for cause and effect may be only correlations. And there may be forces at work that we fail to take into consideration. Still, since so much of our federal budget is funneled toward alleviating a lack of sufficient income, it’s worth a discussion.

It seems to me to just be plain common sense that, if you give a person a sum of money on a regular basis, that is just enough to survive on, that that person will always be dependent on that sum of money. That person will never be able to accumulate sufficient resources to lift himself to the next rung of the ladder. But is money, or the lack thereof, the determining factor? What about education? Schooling is being touted as the be-all and end-all to eliminating poverty—does having some sort of degree ensure success?

At the same time that a college education is portrayed as the best way to move ahead, thousands of students who pinned their dreams to that assessment are graduating from college, only to discover that the pot of gold has been stolen from the rainbow. They have great debt and no job—a sure path over the cliff, landing them dead in the middle of the fifth quintile. So, are we about to have the most educated fifth quintile ever seen on this planet? And if so, how will that affect future prognostications about the best method to climb out of the pit? Wouldn’t it be ironic if, due to this recession, statistics tell us that the number one cause of poverty is a college education? That is why statistics are of such limited value when trying to assess a situation: they can be skewed in any direction, depending on what is measured, and how each variable is framed.

For example, when determining who is in the fifth quintile, the government researchers do not count non-monetary distributions in determining income. That is, food stamps and employer contributions to health care are not considered, although they can total thousands of dollars. So a person can be ranked at the far left of the scale, even though his “poverty” entitles him to benefits that a person earning more money than he is cannot receive.

Or is the problem that those in poverty tend to be single moms and their children? If so, are we merely perpetuating a cycle by providing for them? Should we instead be encouraging fewer children for those who can’t afford to care for them? Should we, as a culture, instill the value of waiting to marry and have children until we have reached a certain income level? Or are we then condemning our society to self-destruction by failing to replace our population as needed?

The questions are endless, and difficult to answer. The main point that we can take away from this is that it is in the government’s best interest to make the entire process murky. Politicians must justify their existence somehow, and if voters were to discover that the best solution is for the government to just get out of the way, they would be sunk. I don’t believe that that is entirely the case: there are truly needy people, widows and orphans who have no real means of subsistence. I just would like for politicians to allow the process to be clearer, to stop trying to manipulate our emotions, so that we can discover what really works, and actually help people.

In particular, it would be helpful to hear from the bottom quintile themselves, not as victims, but as purveyors of their own destinies. You’d think that a person who was living in poverty, or subsisting on distributions of one kind or another, would be the very person who would be in the best position to know whether those distributions were having their intended function, or whether there might be some other benefit that would be of much more value.

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Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics

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