Response to Mr Blair 1

This is one of those posts that started out to be a comment on someone else’s blog until I decided that a) it was too long for a comment, and b) the issue has enough resonance to deserve wider exposure.

A brand-new blog (born March 17, barely a month ago) called Asset Almanac and authored by one Benjamin Blair linked to Monday’s post on infant mortality along with posts on several other blogs he’d never heard of that also featured pieces on the NYT article. Mr Blair’s point in this particular post, gently made, was that we were all having “knee-jerk responses” that aren’t “constructive” because they “impl[y] we ought to return to the good old days pre-welfare reform.”

Before I do answer him, however, I want to acquaint you with Mr Blair so we know who we’re dealing with and can put his remarks in some kind of context.

He describes himself as a “do-gooder…always working for fragile nonprofits” whose “passion” is for something called “asset development”. Asset development, it turns out, is a relatively new anti-poverty strategy built around, apparently, teaching poor people to save money.

The logic is very simple (important ideas are often simple): 401k account-holders save more when there’s a company match; perhaps poor people (few of whom have access to any 401k account, much less a matched one) would save more, and have a better chance of clawing their way out of poverty, if their difficult efforts to save for the future were also matched (…picture penguins marching through the polar winter — that metaphor may suggest the discipline and sacrifice necessary to save on an extremely low income). Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development at Washington University had that epiphany (well, not the goofy penguin part — I take full responsibility for that) and he wrote about it in his 1991 book, Assets for the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy. He argued that asset development, as opposed to (or in addition to) income support, is what can give poor people a chance at financial security and real self-sufficiency.

The beauty of the matched savings account is that the match can be used as not just an incentive to save but also a source of leverage about what to save for. Matched savings accounts, dubbed individual development accounts (IDAs), allow low-income people who complete a required financial education program to use their savings and the matching funds (which are often a generous two or three times the amount saved by the individual, up to a certain limit) to invest in a productive asset such as a first home, higher education, or the capitalization of a micro-business; in other words, the kind of investment that has been shown to move many people permanently up the economic ladder, and though certainly not risk-free investments (which we are being reminded of with the current subprime mortgage crisis), they have proven to be more practical and effective than most other investment options for the poor.

As regular readers have probably already guessed, warning flags starting going off all over the place, if not red then at least blazing orange. The idiotic concept that the poor are poor because they don’t manage their money well enough or save enough has been a right-wing talking-point for a generation, largely employed to frame the blame for poverty on the poor themselves and then sidetrack the discussion into a thoroughly useless cul-de-sac that neatly avoids the only real long-term solution whether we like it or not: income redistribution, an idea that drives our home-made oligarchs into fits of pique and panic.

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