Rent Control and California Prop 10


submitted to LA Times October 31, 2018 Likely only of interest to Californians.

To the Editor, Los Angeles Times

Proposition 10 can be confusing. It does NOT establish rent controls anywhere. The Costa-Hawkins law, which Prop 10 repeals, is a state law that simply takes away the decision-making from local communities on whether or not there should be specific forms of rent regulation on specific types of housing units and established its prohibitions state-wide, overruling local decisions. Proposition 10 repeals that law, leaving decision-making on rent regulations in the hands of local communities, where almost all other land use decisions, e.g. zoning and land use planning regulations are now lodged.

Proposition 10 is essentially a home rule proposition. A YES vote restores local control of key housing decisions. If it passes, it will then be up to local voters to decide what kind of regulations of rents they want, if any, want, if any. They can then consider Gary Painter’s compelling arguments for adopting rent controls to spur more building (LA Times, Op-Ed, October 31), and it will be their decision.

Peter Marcuse
Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning
Columbia University
Home address:
3775 Modoc Road
Santa Barbara, Calif. 93105
Phone: 805 879 7714
Pm35@columbia.edu

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Blog #60 Toward a Housing Strategy for New York 1


Notes Towards a Housing Strategy for New York City

That there Is a housing crisis in New York City for the majority of its residents, and particularly severe for lower income and “discriminated-against minority groups,” hardly requires further documentation.[1] And there is an emerging consensus amongst housing advocacy groups and community-based and progressive political groups that strong measures, from administrative changes to even radical legislation, are needed to remedy the situation. It may be useful to try to put together what a comprehensive agenda for legal, political, and administrative change might look like, on whose substance common agreement might be developed. And the language with which we discuss urban issues needs to be looked at carefully, for the implicit bias much of it contains.

A. sets forth the premises of the strategy.
B. lists some of the concrete programs that might be foregrounded as demands.
C. lists some of the words that are often mischievously used in housing discussions.

A. The strategy accepts the following premises:

1. That there is indeed a crisis in housing, that it inequitably negatively affects particularly low-income and discriminated-against minority groups and inequitably favors higher income groups and profit-motivated suppliers of housing in the housing industry.
2. That the market, given the gross and inequitable inequalities of income reflects these inequalities, and cannot be expected to be a tool to end this crisis; its natural tendency is indeed to exacerbate it, and it requires radical control from government to act otherwise.
3. That community-based decision-making, accepting broadly-defined principles of justice, non-discrimination, and participation, is an essential element in developing a housing system that is equitable and free of crisis.
4. That, while some reforms may meet general approval and be win-win measures, any serious attempt to resolve the housing crisis will involve sharp conflicts of real interests, both material and ideological, and full consensus of serious reform is not to be expect. Rather, conflicts, in which grass-roots organizations and social movements need to play a critical role, are inevitable, and must be anticipated and planned for.
5. That the very words used in debates about housing policy can operate to vitiate meaningful research and be used as tools to influence the outcomes of conflicts over policy.

B. In outline, then, the measures that together might implement a serous strategy [3] addressing the housing crisis might include [2]:

2. Adopting public policies that predictably serve to reduce discrimination, reinforce equity, and help end the housing crisis, including :

a. Ending upmarket rezoning, which produces displacement, discriminates against the interests of those most in need of housing, and produces exclusionary communities.
b. Participatory budgeting, allocating significant sums for housing programs expanding options for affordable housing.[4]
c. Reinterpreting ULURP to required 4/5 majority of City Planning Commission and city Council votes to override a CB vote, thus reversing an opinion of the Planning commission’s counsel that the Charter Revision creating the Community Boards did not give their votes any legal force or effect. [5]
d. Revising City procedures for the handling of properties whose future use is within its power to influence, to give priority to uses expanding housing opportunities for lower-income households and development, to promote ownership and/or management by non-profits in the form of non-profit coops or condos or community land trusts or mutual housing associations community-based non-profit non-governmental organizations.
e. Amending the real estate tax system to serve social policy purposes as well as raise revenue, by increasing taxes for underused and speculatively-held vacant properties, imposing a speculation tax on the profit from rapid turnover of properties acquired for resale.
f. Requiring a registry of residential properties (lots, buildings, units) held vacant for over 3 months and imposing significant fees for late registration or failure to register, steeply increase with time, and authorizing filing of a lien.
g. Rent control, with limits pegged at the lower of tenant affordability and landlord break-even in the aggregate. Eliminating vacancy decontrol.
h. Public housing support and new construction, with continuing occupancy at proportionately increased rent if income increases over limits for entry.
i. Minimum wage and pro-labor organizing measures, with the understanding that they ameliorate the housing crisis, but do not establish an equitable housing system, and are ineffective unless coupled with rent and price controls. (Likewise, health insurance, unemployment compensation, and parallel measures).

C. In research and advocacy, avoiding language that cloaks serious issues or act as euphemisms for actions that would be recognized as undesirable if properly named.[6] Such terms, which often reflect implicit but heavily
Ideologically biased concepts, include:

a. Density, when put forward as if increasing density is per se a suitable goal for a housing policy, or as a simple way to produce affordable housing
b. Affordable housing, when used without recognizing that the definition of what is affordable must take into account that the need for housing becomes greater as incomes decline.
c. Market, when only the private profit-driven market in meant, rather than a system of shaping the distribution of goods and serves, and of public policies, to reflect varying individual and social preferences.
d. Up-zoning, rather than upmarket zoning
e. Wealth creation, if seen as a goal of housing policy for home owners, treating housing, not as a necessity of life valued for its use, but rather as a commodity invested in for it the profit to be derived from it
f. Government intervention, if suggesting there is a “natural” private housing system not fully dependent from the outset on governmental action.
g. Diversity, if used to encourage introduction of higher income or higher status households into lower income communities or communities of color.
h. Color blindness, if used to preclude examination of patterns that my reflect discrimination on the basis of color.
i. Environmentally Sustainable, when excluding the consideration of the social environment.
j. Displacement, when limited to the immediate eviction of households, excluding 1) precautionary or “voluntary” displacement undertaken ahead of but because of the immanence of rising unaffordable rents/costs or foreclosure actions, excluding 2) secondary displacement resulting from price changes in areas outside the immediate area of a given change but required because of it, and excluding 3) excluding prospective displacement, the prevention of households moving into -moving into a neighborhood desired by and otherwise affordable for them because of rising prices. [7]
k. Gentrification, when used as synonymous with neighborhood improvement, rather than its accurate definition as in-movement of higher income households into a neighborhood displacing lower-income households.
l. Integration, desegregation, mixed income, when used to support-movement of a white non-Hispanic population into a community displacing lower income and/or minority households. [8]
m. Growth, when used as a self-evident goal of public policy per se, neglecting what is to be grown and for whom, the relation between the various forms and directions of growth and social justice .
n. Competitiveness, when used as a desirable goal of city policy per se, neglecting questions of the net social desirability of aiding the competitive position of a given city against other cities in terms of the impact on social justice and the differential impact of economic competiveness on different economic and ethnic and racial goops.
o. City, as in ”the city,” when used to suggest that the city is an organic entity in which a benefit to any one part is a benefit to all, avoiding acknowledgement of the multiple conflicting interests in the city and the recognition that benefits for some, most frequently the upper income and elite, is likely to be at the expense of others, most likely the poor and minorities, e.g. wage levels.
p. Filtering, the assumption, contrary to fact, that benefits at the top of the income social, ethnic and racial ladder will filter down and benefit those below as well. As their higher-income residents move in, the tendency is rather to displace than to benefit lower-income ones. [9]
q. Transformative, unless used to separate radical from reformist proposals or policies. [10]

———————-
1. See, for instance, the several excellent studies of the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, the trenchant studies of many
3.For the distinctions between reformist and transformative proposals, see pmarcuse.wordpress.com, “Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas”
4. See Marcuse, Peter. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting–Expansion.” In City Limits web site, http://www.citylimits.org/conversations/262/participatory-budgeting-what-s-the-potential.
5. A vote of the City Council, or even a new Charter Revision may be necessary for this purpose, and might expand the Board’s access to information and revise Board procedures improving the availability of technical assistance outside of city government if needed.
6. Marcuse, Peter, 2006. Expert Report, In Mhany Management Inc., And New York Communities For Change Vs. Incorporated Village Of Garden City and Garden City Board Of Trustees, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Case 2:05-cv-02301-ADS-WDW Document 413 Filed 12/06/13 Page 1 of 65 PageID #: 10601, cited at page 41.
7.For a fuller discussion, see Marcuse, Peter, “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 28, 1985, reprinted in revised form as “Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in Nw York City” in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, eds., Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986, pp. 153-177, and in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, eds. The Gentrification Reader, 2010, London, Routledge, pp. 333-348.
8.As a sample of the mischievous use of the term: a chair of the New York City Planning commission argued: “gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth.. “ “Improvement of neighborhoods – some people call it gentrification – provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said.
9. Leo Goldberg’s draft for his research spells this out.
10. See pmarcuse.wordpress.com, Blog #11, Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims.

Blog #53 – Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan


Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Some Cautions on  the           de Blasio Plan.

Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan is a far better plan than anything we’ve had since LaGuardia, and worthy of full support. But there are four large issues that need to be addressed, some in its principles, some in implementation: Density, Growth, Equity, and Comprehensiveness.

Density leads to gentrification and displacement, if not controlled [1]. There is a natural tendency look to the market to determine where increased density will work, to support increased density by zoning decisions, infrastructure investment location, tax policies, eased building height and FAR requirements, support for mega-projects, where the market indicates there is effective demand. That means, specifically, where there is the proverbial rent gap: where increased real estate values, particularly land values, suggest higher profits are to be gained by improvements, whether modernization and upscaling or higher and more dense new construction. Permitting such “improvements” thus is synonymous with increasing the prices of housing, not only in the locations made more dense, but in their surroundings. That in turn means one of the principal causes of gentrification and displacement is is advanced by public policy.

But there are good ways and bad ways of increasing density, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permitting demolition of low-rise low-rent housing in favor of denser more expensive housing.
  • Permitting new housing in public housing sites for occupancy at market rates, where low-rent, i.e. subsidized housing could be built. Increasing density in already gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Permitting densification without neighborhood rent regulations, fair and strictly enforced.
  • Permitting open and undeveloped space to be built on without regard to existing neighborhood use and needs.
  • Disregarding unbiased neighborhood opposition and community-based planning goals.
  • Increasing congestion and pollution without adequate transportation provision.
  • Providing bonuses permitting development beyond existing planning limitations

Good:

  • Increasing density by requiring that partially-occupied and vacant properties being held off market for speculative purposes be made available for occupancy, at affordable rents.
  • Improving public housing.
  • Increasing the supply of subsidized housing.
  • Controlling against the displacement effects of gentrification by rent regulation strictly enforced.
  • Make every program increasing density subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.
  • Investing in remediation of brownfield sites while preserving compatible industrial or commercial uses providing benefits equitably distributed.
  • Complying with community and city-wide planning standards regarding contextual development, light and air standards, accessibility provision and congestion avoidance.

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided. Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development, because it will require a greater cross-subsidy, hence higher market rate units, hence even more likely non-Hispanic white. . And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which result in a net increase of the proportion of high-income uses in the larger community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select the tenants providing meting inclusionary requirements, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[2]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing.
  • Make every program subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

A good Housing Plan requires long-term considerations beyond its immediate measures.Desirable provisions of a housing plan for New York City might include a city-wide housing plan developed as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process, that would deal with goals and standards for decisions on the location of housing and population distribution and density. Such a plan should deal explicitly with issues of segregation and equity among income groups and by race, color, ethnicity, age and gender. Zoning should be an important part of the implementation of such a plan, and specifically should include consideration of income-targeting land use allocation, as in providing income targets in the definitions of residential zones.

It should be comprehensive, and consider issues such as: zoning regulations facilitating for low income housing; Rent regulations. Tax action policies, taxing profits fairly, holding down depreciation deductions to match reality, surtaxes on flipping housing units, taxing quick turnover sales as ordinary income, making real estate taxes progressive, conforming to binding 197-a comunity plans, calling for equity impact statements on planning decisions, adopting clear city equity standards.Make a housing plan part of the city’s planning process, including goals for an agreed-upon equitable distributing of locations for housing development.[3] Adopt anti speculative warehousing legislation to deal with the full use of vacant units. Give due weight to the need for open space and active public political uses as well as recreational and passive. Integrate with regional considerations.

A general concern with the plan may arise from the process envisaged to put it into effect. The de Blasio Plan states:

“the City will conduct the analyses required for development of a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that satisfies sound land-use planning and legal principles, then will engage a broad group of housing stakeholders to solicit their input into the modifications and expansions of the Inclusionary Housing Program, and will work with stakeholders moving forward to ensure that the program functions smoothly to support development while also meeting the needs of communities” p. 31.

But if all “stakeholders,” regardless of their position, resources, and needs are treated as equals, equity is ill served, and inequalities are as likely to reinforced as reduced. A more robust arrangement for public participation is required, in which community and grass-roots active participation is supported.

A comprehensive look at the extent of the long-term over-all need for better affordable housing will show that the de Blasio plan is only one step, although an important one, in meeting the full need.[4] The private profit-driven market should be brought in to contribute. But to rely on public-private partnerships to solve the problem is ultimately a refusal to recognize that it will not do so, and cannot be expected to do so. Ultimately public provision is an inescapable necessity. The private housing sector should contribute to the necessary resources, by tools like mandatory inclusionary zoning, and certainly by progressive taxation, but the responsibility to pursue equity in housing is a public, not a private, responsibility.

Growth is not per se desirable. There is an underlying assumption running through the plan that considers growth to be a value for itself, development to be per se a good thing, even though it is often qualified as having “serving community needs” or “serve low and moderate income households.” It is an assumption that deserves examination. New York City today is a city where “growth” is largely led by its financial sector, whose prosperity becomes a threshold factor in the establishment of priorities.

Growth, generally, is desirable that reduces inequality.[5] Is growth desired if it increases inequality? Or increases segregation? Both short and long term factors come into play, and perhaps complex economic analyses, but should equity not be of fundamentally importance, rather than growth for its own sake?

Framing an equitable plan for housing is a complex process. De Blasio’s plan is a major step forward. But there is more to be done.

[1] For a look a the historical treatment of density in New York City’s development, see Marcuse, Peter. 1993. “Density and Social Justice: Is There a Relationship? A Historical Examination” Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory (D), vol. Three, pp. 50‑87.

[2] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

[3] The plan speaks encouragingly of following policies “that [satisfy] sound land-use planning and legal “Principles; p. 31. They need to explicitly deal with issues of equity and segregation. ”

[4] The data in the Plan itself support this conclusion, as well as the detailed figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey and studies of the Furman Center and a number of other sources.

[5] Reducing inequality is well known as a key de Blasio concern, and that is reflected frequently in the plan, e.g. p. 26, but requires concretization in application.

Blog #50 – Inclusionary Zoning: Good and Bad


Blog #50 – Inclusionary Zoning: Do’s and Do-not’s. —

[Slightly revised version incorporated in Blog #53, Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan]

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided.Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development. And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which , net, increase the proportion of high-income uses in a community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select tenants providing inclusionary benefits, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[1]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

[1] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

Blog #47: Anti-Poverty Measures Alone Won’t Do


It’s good that the Nation[1] calls attention to shameful way in which our economy exploits the poor and how inadequately our government responds to the problem. But calling the problem “poverty” focuses on just half of the problem. It accepts the idea that the poor are responsible for their own problems, and government needs simply to be ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work” to let them “climb the ladder of opportunity” (Obama in the State of the Union address). But that skirts the fact that then you have to confront the other half of the problem, the fact that the poor are so poor because the rich are so rich – the two-sided problem of inequality.

Inequality isn’t wrong per se. People are different; they don’t all have the same abilities, the same interests, the same motivations, some are able to do more than others, some have greater natural abilities than others, some need more than others for a decent life. We wouldn’t want everyone to have exactly the same incomes; that would be unfair. But we don’t want anyone to be homeless, or sick, or uneducated, or excluded from the benefits of a socially just society, just because they don’t have an adequate income. And our society is rich enough that it can afford a good bit of inequality and yet provide adequately for all. Why doesn’t it?

What makes inequality an appropriate concern for public policy is not just how much inequality there is, but what its mechanisms are and what the justice or injustice of its effects is – a sort of cost-benefit analysis of inequality. “Inequality”  is not an actor, a thing; beware the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Inequality is the result of the actions of a variety of actors, they produce ine1quality by their actions, and then inequality in turn affects others.

The gross disparity between the rich and the poor is intuitively shocking. Without reflection, most of us believe (using Rawls’ approach to defining justice) that having one person get 1,000 times more of what society produces than another person gets is on its face unfair, inequality can’t conceivably be justified at that scale by any moral standard or rational analysis.

But that intuition needs to be examined. As to moral standards or values, there’s no magic number for what the range should be. Most of us would look at the criteria by which some get more than others, the reasons for the inequality, not simply the extent of it. The question is partly one of analysis: why some are so poor, is it their own doing, are they poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or incarcerated or discriminated against when they could rectify their situation through their own efforts? If so, attention should be focused on the characteristics of the poor and how to influence their behavior. If their poverty is not subject to their remedy, if they are to a significant extent the victims of conditions outside their control, then as a matter of policy  we as a society should be concerned to make sure every individual really has the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

There is I think a general consensus that such a right exists and should be implemented by e effective public anti-poverty policies. That’s one question. How we shape policies to deal with it depends further on rational analysis of the causes of the problem. Public policy will undoubtedly either increase or decrease inequality, but it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether a given measure leads to more or less inequality.  It’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality. The discussion on this question is what the debate about anti-poverty policy and it successes or failures is all about – see Blog #43. Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Poverty is only half of the issue of inequality. One person can be poor all by him or herself, but it takes two to be unequal. The relative wealth of the rich compared to the poor must take into account not only whether the poor deserve their poverty but whether the rich deserve their wealth. Again, it’s both a matter of the analysis and the moral and justice evaluation of the result.  It’s quite possible that, as a matter of analysis, it doesn’t matter to anyone else if the wealthy have private yachts and 100-room mansions, so long as the poor are not poor below some level considered adequate for a rich democracy. Having great wealth is not in itself bad or unjust.[2] ; It’s rather the social consequence of that wealth, how it was obtained, and the equality or inequality of its distribution, that should concern public policy. The question for analysis here, then, is whether it matters to the poor how rich the rich are.  Are the poor more poor because the rich are so rich, or might it even be that the poor are less poor because of the wealth of the rich, who are the “job-creators?” Again, it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality.   The discussion on this question is what the debate about inequality should be all about, but unfortunately is not. (yet?)

An exclusive focus on anti-poverty measures targeted at the poor can shift attention from exactly this discussion and its policy implications.  Addressing the role of the rich in creating and maintaining the poverty of the poor smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth that increasing productivity provides .It’s no wonder such questions are rarely raised. What’s wrong with inequality is not only that increasing wealth bypasses the poor, but that it increases their poverty.  Seriously addressing poverty requires addressing inequality at both ends, the wealth of those that have as well as the poverty of those who have not, reining in the rich as well as uplifting the poor.

An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud.

Peter Marcuse[3]


[1] Greg Kaufman, “Building an Anti-Poverty Movement,” The Nation,  [February. 2, 2014]

[2] Although some religions seem to so hold: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

[3] This is a substantially revised version of a letter in The Nation, Marcuse, Peter . 2014. “Call It Anti-Inequality.” March 3, p. 26.

The discussion is extended in blogs from Blog #43 on, and will be extended in Blog #48, .What’s so Wrong About Inequality.

Blog #44 – Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?


Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

The language in the slogans used to address what most see as the basic social problem in the United States varies significantly. The key terms run from “war on poverty” to “ladders of opportunity” to “upward mobility” to “fight against inequality.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in his inaugural address as Mayor of New York City called on the City “ to put an end to economic and social inequalities,”[1] President Obama before his second inaugural wanted to make inequality the “defining issue” of his second term,[2] but that language changed to creating “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address.

Do those different terms all mean the same thing, or what difference is there among them? Lots.

The War on Poverty (see Blog #43 on the phrase), in fact as well as in words, addressed itself to the condition of the poor: lack of educational opportunities, weak family structure, discrimination in employment, residential segregation, gender discrimination, inadequate workplace safety, predatory ending. It contained an undercurrent focusing on encouraging the poor to help themselves, “empowerment,” enabling the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. That undercurrent becomes the dominant theme in the conservative Republic answer to poverty through education and job training of the poor, “making the workforce investment system more responsive to the needs of employers.”[3]

The ladder of opportunity” language to which President Obama has turned at least permits the image of a ladder with both a bottom and as well a top. De Blasio’s language of inequality pushes that image to recognition of the fact that those at the top are in fact responsible for the fact that others stay at the bottom. Recent research on upward income mobility similarly raises the question of the inability of the poor to improve their relative position over several generations.

The conclusion, then, if inequality rather than just poverty is the focus, is that something must be done about what keeps some so rich, as well as what keeps some so poor.  Calling in “inequality” is easily mistaken for substituting a measurement for a cause. The conservative challenge that inequality doesn’t cause poverty is quite right. But the conclusion that limiting the wealth of the rich won’t help the poor is quite wrong. It raises the question of the relation between rich and poor, exactly the question that the language of the War on Poverty or the enabling/opportunity approach conceals.

For in fact it is indeed the way the rich obtain their wealth that accounts for the poverty of the poor. A short piece like this is no way to engage that issue fully, but the outline of an answer may be suggested: The specific mechanisms are known:

  • Exploitation at the work place. Keeping the pay for workers as low as possible is an inherent part of running a business and making a profit: the lower wages are, the higher profits are. Employers are “job creators” only against their will; the fewer workers they need use to produce a different product or service, the better off the employer is. The high pay for business executives and dividends to shareholders are directly at the expense of the workers in their businesses. .
  • Exploitation at the consumption end. Increasing the demand for ever more consumers goods, of course necessarily paid for out of wages, increases the profits of the producers of those goods and the wealth of the owners of the firms that produce them. Inducing demand artificially, through advertising and the wide array of cultural patterns of the kinds long documented by sociologists and economists,[4] supports the consumption exploitation of poor (as well as middle class[5]) consumers, to the benefit of the rich.
  • Exploitation at the financial end. Where, after all, do extraordinary profits of hedge fund managers and bankers come from? Ultimately, of course, from the prices paid by the purchasers of the goods and services they are financing. Their interest and dividend incomes and high salaries are really based on the profits of those making their money from more direct exploitation of the poor.
  • Exploitation of the benefits of land ownership, an obvious and pervasive monopoly, paid, as economists put it, by rent not for anything that the recipient of rent payments has produced or done, but solely extracted by him through the possession of something in limited supply for which there is demand. Property owners and developers are among the richest of the rich (think Donald Trump), in large part because they are able to benefit from the speculative increases in the pries of land which they own.  Ultimately, those benefits are paid for in the prices consumers pay and the rents that tenants pay, a regressively distributive system enriching land owners at the expense of all others.
  • All four of these forms of exploitation are among the primary causes of poverty and, centrally, inequality.

Digging deeper into what a war on poverty ought to be about would lead to examining, not only how the poor might be directly helped, but also how the rich might be constrained in those actions that keep the poor in poverty. Digging deeper into how inequality might be reduced would lead not only to measuring the extent to which it is reflected in income inequality and be ameliorated by boosting the incomes at the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity but would lead also to the same concern for limiting the way the rich get to the top of the ladder to begin with.

The dispute between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over the financing of preo-kindergarten for poor children a vivid example of the difference, Cuomo’s insistence on paying out of general funds, does help to alleviate poverty, but it also avoids de Blasio’s proposal for  paying through a dedicated tax on incomes over %$500,000 addresses inequality directly. Thus Cuomo may alleviate poverty but de Blasio aims further to directly reduce inequality, looking both at the top and the bottom of the ladder. Reducing poverty is much less controversial than reducing inequality, which confronts more basic vested interests.[6]

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[1] Text at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/nyregion/complete-text-of-bill-de-blasios-inauguration-speech.html.

[3] Republican Senator Tim Scott, setting out h is bill to implement the war on poverty, at http://www.scott.senate.gov/press-release/senator-tim-scott-introduces-opportunity-agenda.

[4] See the work of writers such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Thorsten Veblen, and many others.

[5] It should be clear that exploitation is not limited to “poor”  workers, but is drawn from the contributions of the unemployed, the excluded, as well as the “idle class,” in the multiple ways they contribute to the functioning the system that perpetuates the unequal division of wealth.

[6] The debate between David Brooks who has the same political analysis as above and comes to the conclusion we should all focus “on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/opinion/brooks-the-inequality-problem.html?_r=0 and Robert Reich,who concludes “The concentration of power at the top — which flows largely from the concentration of income and wealth there — has prevented  Washington from dealing with the problems of the poor and the middle class,” http://robertreich.org/post/73764746576, reflects almost exactly the above discussion.

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?


Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Odd, in all the discussion of whether “we” lost the war on “poverty,” the question of who the combatants were or are quite escapes notice. Presumably, if the war was lost, the “poor” were the losers – but they’re not the “we” who undertook that war, but if anything they are third party beneficiaries, in the eyes of those who “declared” the war. A cynic might of course argue that some who voiced support for the war were as much concerned with social peace and undercutting of the painful protests of the 60’s urban uprisings and the currents that led to President Kennedy’s assassination as they were concerned with justice for the poor. But be that as it may, if the poor were the losers, who were the winners?

Calling it a war on “poverty” is an elegant way of avoiding that question. “Poverty” is not a combatant, a set of people, of actors, but a condition from which some people, the poor, suffer, a condition other people create. . A real war on the causes of poverty would have to look at who the poor are – surely we are not declaring war on the poor, but rather on those who are causing their poverty. And the question is “who,” not “what,” is responsible: the conditions, institutions, laws, economic and social relations, policies, that produce poverty in as rich a society as ours. These are all conditions produced by “who’s”, by people. And, unless one wants to revert to the discredited mantra of blaming the victim, it is the non-poor who are responsible for poverty. But while that formulation may be logically and morally correct, but it will hardly fly politically. Hence, opportunistically, a war on a condition, not its cause.

So, generally, it must be the non-poor who are the winners, who are or believe they are better off if the war on “poverty” is lost. Are they the 1%, or the top 10%, or those earning over a million dollars a year, or simply those “in power?” A debatable question, but one which the language of “a war on poverty” elegantly avoids.

A war on inequality would be another story. If taken seriously, it highlights that some are getting more, and others less, of society’s wealth. It requires, if really thought about, naming the winners as well as the losers in the fight. That is the Pandora’s Box the Occupy movement’s 1%/99% opens, and that Bill de Blasio highlighted in attacking inequality in the New York City mayoral race. But think about it this: a tax increase of less than ½ of 1% on those earning over $500,000 to help poor children have pre-kindergarten, as he proposes – if that is defeated, won’t it be crystal clear who lost the war on poverty, and who won it?

(On “poverty” vs. “inequality” as the target, see Blog #44, coming.)

Peter Marcuse

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Postscript:

The debate between Governor Cuomo’s Pre-K plan and Mayor de Blasio’s plan  is a perfect example of the different between attacking poverty and attacking inequality.  Both wish to provide universal pre-kindergarten education of all children. Governor Cuomo wishes to finance it out of general revenues, and combine it with tax cuts primarily favoring corporations and upper income households.[1] De Blasio wants to finance it with a dedicated tax on incomes of $500,000. Cuomo’s approach is legitimated as an attack on poverty, de Blasio’s as an attack on inequality.

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[1] On the proposed tax cuts, see Michael M. Grynbaum and Thomas Kaplan, “Pre-K Plan Puts Cuomo at Odds with de Blasio,” New York Times, January 22, 2014, p. 1 and 16.