Poverty and Discrimination / Edition 1

Poverty and Discrimination / Edition 1

by Kevin Lang
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Poverty and Discrimination / Edition 1

Many ideas about poverty and discrimination are nothing more than politically driven assertions unsupported by evidence. And even politically neutral studies that do try to assess evidence are often simply unreliable. In Poverty and Discrimination, economist Kevin Lang cuts through the vast literature on poverty and discrimination to determine what we actually know and how we know it.

Using rigorous statistical analysis and economic thinking to judge what the best research is and which theories match the evidence, this book clears the ground for students, social scientists, and policymakers who want to understand—and help reduce—poverty and discrimination. It evaluates how well antipoverty and antidiscrimination policies and programs have worked—and whether they have sometimes actually made the problems worse. And it provides new insights about the causes of, and possible solutions to, poverty and discrimination.

The book begins by asking, "Who is poor?" and by giving a brief history of poverty and poverty policy in the United States in the twentieth century, including the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Among the topics covered are the changing definition of poverty, the relation between economic growth and poverty, and the effects of labor markets, education, family composition, and concentrated poverty. The book then evaluates the evidence on racial discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and criminal justice, as well as sex discrimination in the labor market, and assesses the effectiveness of antidiscrimination policies.

Throughout, the book is grounded in the conviction that we must have much better empirical knowledge of poverty and discrimination if we hope to reduce them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691119540
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/02/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 154,860
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.26(d)

About the Author

Kevin Lang is Chairman of the Boston University Department of Economics and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is coeditor of the journal Labour Economics.

Read an Excerpt

Poverty and Discrimination

By Kevin Lang

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One


The writings of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo earned economics the nickname the dismal science. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus argued that population growth inevitably outstrips the growth of food production, so eventually population becomes too great for food supply. In The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), Ricardo expanded this argument to the "iron law of wages." At wages above the subsistence level, population grows, driving down wages. At wages below the subsistence level, the poor face starvation, population declines, and wages rise. Poverty policies that transfer money to the poor must be ineffective in the long run because wages must always end up at the subsistence level.

Writing less than a century later, Alfred Marshall was much more optimistic. He believed it was possible to eliminate poverty, if not within a generation, at least within two generations. Marshall thought poverty policy consisted of increasing the demand for labor and reducing the supply of unskilled labor. He argued that economic growth increased the demand for labor. Increased education would lower the supply of unskilled labor, both directly, by moving workers from the unskilled to the skilled labor force, and indirectly, by reducing population growth. To further reduce the size of the unskilledlabor force, society should encourage later marriages and childbearing among the "lower strains." Finally, government should address the environment in which the poor lived. Marshall commented on the benefits of the suburbs, "where excellent systems of drainage, water supply and lighting, together with good schools and opportunities for open air play, give conditions at least as conducive to vigour as are to be found in the country," and continued, "There is no better use for public and private money than in providing public parks and playgrounds in large cities, in contracting with railways to increase the number of workmen's trains run by them, and in helping those of the working classes who are willing to leave the large towns to do so, and to take their industries with them." Marshall saw little role for redistribution of income to the poor. Giving the poor money would reduce their industriousness. Only the victims of misfortune were good candidates for such charity.

In sharp contrast, Henry George, in Progress and Poverty (1879), maintained that because land was fixed in supply and necessary for production, only landowners would benefit from progress. According to George, the solution was to raise taxes on land (not on structures or other improvements) in proportion to their value. In this way, the benefits from the increased value of land could be shared with workers.

1. The Content of This Book

From the vantage point of another century of experience, it is clear that Marshall's optimism was in part justified and in part exaggerated. Standards of living are much higher than they were in the late nineteenth century. On the other hand, poverty did not disappear in two generations. In large part, this is because our understanding of what it means to be poor has changed over time. Much of chapter 2 is devoted to exploring this issue.

But the issue is not only that we have redefined who is poor. Using a constant definition of poverty, over the past three decades there has been little change in the proportion of Americans who are poor, despite dramatic increases in average incomes. Thus the Marshall-George debate remains relevant. Has the relation between economic growth and poverty broken down? Did some other trend hide the positive effects of economic growth? Or is the problem the way we measure poverty? Chapters 3 and 4 address these issues.

Many of Marshall's concerns remain relevant today. As chapter 4 shows, there is a strong relation between poverty and the state of the labor market for low-wage workers. Chapter 5 addresses the effectiveness of different policies designed to raise after-tax wages for low-wage workers. Some of these policies follow in the Marshallian tradition of increasing skills and demand for low-wage workers. Others have a somewhat more Georgist flavor (although certainly not based on taxing land), using the tax system to support low-wage workers or intervening directly in the wage-setting process.

We also see renewed focus on the family and on increasing the age of mothers at first childbirth. Chapter 6 addresses issues such as out-of-wedlock births and teenage childbearing. It looks at policies designed to help children. As discussed earlier, Marshall also believed that poverty was closely related to place. He advocated getting the poor out of crowded cities. Today, many analysts believe that concentrated poverty is a particular problem. Chapter 7 addresses the issues associated with such poverty and programs designed to alleviate it.

Since Marshall's time, the availability of public schooling has increased dramatically. Not only public primary schooling but public secondary schooling is universally available in the United States. Yet the effectiveness of public education, particularly in high-poverty areas, is hotly debated in this country. Chapter 8 discusses the debate over education reform.

Finally, the concern that programs that support the poor will "sap their industriousness" has been a recurring theme over the centuries of poverty policy. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more commonly known as welfare reform, was a response to concerns that welfare was hurting the very people it was designed to help, very much as Marshall believed that the Poor Laws passed in the late eighteenth century in England had hurt laborers by encouraging them to rely on support for the poor. It is still somewhat early to assess the impact of welfare reform, but chapter 9 discusses the background of reform and what we know about its effects.

Although most of this book is about poverty, the last third is about discrimination, and of that last third, three of the four chapters focus on race discrimination while the last is concerned with sex discrimination. There are two reasons for combining discussions of poverty and discrimination in a single book. The first is that the methods researchers use to study the two topics are closely related. Discrimination research relies on a combination of theory, observational studies, and experimental methods similar to those used in poverty research (discussed later). Although discrimination research relies more heavily on theory and less heavily on actual or quasi-experiments than does poverty research, it is easy to make the transition from the latter to the former. For the most part, those of you reading this book do not need a new set of analytical tools. Indeed, when we discuss sex discrimination, we will return to some of the same theories that we will have discussed when analyzing the relation between the decline of marriage and poverty.

The second reason for discussing poverty and discrimination in the same book is that, although the topics are distinct, they are also related. Most of the poor are not black, but the poverty rate is much higher among black Americans than among white Americans. To the extent that discrimination contributes to lower incomes among blacks, it contributes to poverty and helps to account for their higher poverty rate.

But it is also likely that higher poverty rates among blacks contribute to discrimination. Chapter 10 discusses a variety of theories of discrimination. Most rest on perceived or actual differences (or both) between blacks and whites. If blacks tend to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than do whites, this can affect the flow of information from potential employees to potential employers and can, through multiple mechanisms, reduce the employment prospects of blacks relative to whites, even whites from the same background.

On the other hand, these differences could promote prejudice, but in many settings people are unable to act on their prejudice. Therefore, the existence of prejudice need not lead to worse outcomes for blacks than for otherwise equivalent whites. Chapter 11 examines the evidence for and against the existence of discrimination in the labor market as well as the role of policy in addressing labor market discrimination. Many researchers believe that differences between blacks and whites in labor market outcomes primarily reflect differences in the skills that people bring to the labor market. Chapter 12 explores the black-white test score gap and issues regarding differences in access to schooling and desegregation. Chapter 13 reviews the evidence on discrimination in other domains, including the justice system and customer markets.

Just as poverty is more common among blacks than among whites, it is more common among women than among men and is particularly common among female-headed households. Thus differences in earnings capacity between men and women may have an important impact on the prevalence of poverty. Chapter 14 addresses the debate over the source of this differential and policies designed to reduce it.

Some readers of earlier drafts of this book have commented that it would benefit from a lengthier discussion of inequality. After all, one important explanation for the lack of a decline in poverty over the past three decades is the dramatic increase in inequality. In the concluding chapter, I argue that reducing inequality must be an important component of any policy that reduces poverty. Nevertheless, I have made only a modest attempt to accommodate readers who have requested more on this subject.

There are two reasons that I have not added a complete chapter or more on the study of inequality. The first is simply a matter of space and time. This book is already longer than either the publisher or I anticipated, and it may well contain more material than can be covered in a typical semester course (although I do cover most of the material in a semester).

The second reason is that the study of inequality in many ways relies on a different set of tools and methods than does the study of poverty and discrimination. By its nature, the theory of inequality requires a more global approach. The empirical analysis of inequality, for the most part, uses a different statistical approach and, in particular, makes less use of actual and quasi-experiments, which are the focus of much of this book.

2. Recent Developments in the Study of Poverty and Discrimination

The earlier discussion may have given the impression that little has changed since Marshall and George debated progress and poverty. In fact, the study of poverty in general and poverty policy in particular has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. A large part of the impetus for the change can be traced to the debate over the negative income tax.

In 1962, the future Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed that the welfare system in the United States be replaced with a negative income tax. Under a negative income tax, all individuals or households with incomes below a certain level would receive a basic guaranteed annual income from the government. As household income increased, the government grant (or negative income tax) would be scaled back. When household income was sufficiently high, the household would not receive any grant from the government but instead would pay income tax as it would in a standard income tax system. Although Friedman was a well-known conservative, he was also a highly respected economist, and his proposal was subject to considerable analysis in professional journals.

Support for the negative income tax crossed political boundaries. The first proposal for a negative income tax came from the Johnson administration in 1965, and the 1967 reforms to the welfare system reflect some of the spirit of the negative income tax proposal. Nixon's Family Assistance Plan proposed a form of negative income tax that was opposed by welfare rights activists on the left. James Tobin, also a Nobel laureate but, in contrast with Friedman, a recognized liberal, designed a negative income tax proposal for the McGovern campaign in 1972.

The key aspects of the theoretical analysis can be summarized briefly. If the negative income tax were to be affordable, the rate at which the grant would be reduced as income increased would have to be substantial. At a minimum, the grant would decline by one dollar for every three dollars of income and more probably by one dollar for every two dollars of income. In today's terms, even using the lower rate, a worker earning nine dollars an hour would see his family's grant fall by three dollars for each hour that he worked. Thus, in effect, he would be earning only six dollars an hour. Because the after-tax hourly wage of working families would be much lower but their overall income would be higher, these families might work less under a negative income tax than they would otherwise.

On the other hand, under traditional welfare, benefits were typically reduced by one dollar for every one dollar a recipient earned. Thus people with very low potential earnings who were therefore unlikely to earn much more than they would receive from welfare had little or no incentive to work. Under a negative income tax, they would keep some of their earnings and thus have some incentive to work. The advocates of the negative income tax hoped that it would encourage very low-income families to work and not reduce labor supply very much among somewhat higher-income households.

But of course it was possible that just the opposite would happen. Perhaps current welfare recipients would be little affected if their incentive to work were increased and there would be a big reduction in work effort among near-poor families who did not receive assistance through traditional welfare. This issue could not be resolved on the basis of theory alone.

Economists began with observational studies, that is, they looked at the relation between after-tax wages and labor supply in the population. They relied on surveys of individuals who reported, among other variables, their hours of work and earnings or wage rate.

We can think of an observational study in the following way. Suppose we find a sample of people who seem to be otherwise similar but some of whom earn six dollars an hour and some of whom earn nine dollars an hour. If the only difference between the two groups is that some people were lucky and got jobs paying nine dollars an hour and others were unlucky and got jobs paying six dollars hour, it may be reasonable to assume that if we cut the pay of the lucky people to six dollars an hour, they would act like the unlucky people. Suppose that similar people earning six dollars an hour worked two hours per week less than those earning nine dollars an hour. Then we might conclude that if we were to tax workers earning nine dollars an hour so that they ended up earning six dollars an hour, they would reduce their labor by two hours per week.

The implicit assumption that the only difference between the groups is how lucky they were is very strong. It is likely that even though they look similar on paper, the people earning nine dollars an hour are somehow different from those earning six dollars an hour. For example, they may be more skilled or work harder even though they have similar educations. Or their jobs may be different. The higher-paying job may be more dangerous or more demanding. So the real challenge for the statistician, and one to which we will devote a great deal of time in this book, is figuring out ways to obtain samples of people who differ only along the dimension we are trying to study.

A classic book by Glen Cain and Harold Watts brought together seven papers focused on predicting the effect of a negative income tax on labor supply. In their conclusion, Cain and Watts point out the large range in the estimated effects of very similar programs. One study found that a $3,000 guarantee coupled with a 50 percent tax rate would have a negligible effect on the labor supply of husbands. In contrast, a second study predicted that a less generous program with a $2,400 guarantee and a 50 percent tax rate would reduce the labor supply of male family members by 37 percent. The former study implied that the negative income tax would be a cost-effective approach to reducing poverty. The latter implied that it would be very costly.

As reflected in this example, it is often very difficult to use observational data to obtain convincing evidence of the causal effect of one variable (such as the after-tax wage or parental absence) on a second variable (such as labor supply or adult outcomes). If we could conduct an experiment in which we randomly assigned some people to have high wages and some people to have low wages, we would have much more convincing evidence regarding the relation between labor supply and after-tax wages.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Chapter 1: Introduction 1

1. The Content of This Book 2

2. Recent Developments in the Study of Poverty and Discrimination 4

3. The Object of This Book 8

4. Why Do Policy Analysts Disagree? The Limits of Statistical Arguments 10

5. Why Do Policy Analysts Disagree? The Role of Values 12

6. A Case Study: Retention in Grade 13

7. Concluding Remarks 17

8. Further Reading 18

9. Questions for Discussion 18

10. Appendix: A Quick Guide to Statistics 19


Chapter 2: Who Is Poor? 31

1. Evidence on the Importance of Relative Income 36

2. How the Government Measures Poverty 37

3. Valuing Nonmonetary Income 39

4. Over What Time Period Should We Measure Poverty? 40

5. Other Problems with the Official Measure 41

6. The National Academy of Sciences Report 42

7. Gathering the Data 42

8. Who Is Poor (By the Official Measure)? 43

9. Extreme Poverty 45

10. Homelessness 45

11. Hunger and Food Insecurity 48

12. Alternative Measures of Poverty 51

13. The Dynamics of Poverty 53

14. Why Does Poverty Last So Long for Some People? 56

15. Concluding Remarks 58

16. Further Reading 58

17. Questions for Discussion 59

18. Appendix: A Brief Note on Data 61

Chapter 3: The Evolution of Poverty Policy 63

1. Federal Poverty Programs, 1970-2000 63

2. Incentives under AFDC 66

3. The Earned Income Tax Credit 69

4. Cash or In-Kind Transfer: Which Is Better? 78

5. Concluding Remarks 81

6. Further Reading 81

7. Questions for Discussion 82

Chapter 4: Trends in Poverty 83

1. Trends Using the Official Measure 83

2. Trends in Poverty under Alternate Measures 86

3. Accounting for Trends 87

4. Concluding Remarks 102

5. Further Reading 103

6. Questions for Discussion 104

7. Appendix: Multivariate Analysis 104

Chapter 5: Labor Market Policies 108

1. Understanding Wage Inequality 108

2. Minimum Wage Laws 115

3. Living Wage Laws 120

4. Job Training Programs 121

5. Can Job Training Programs Reduce Poverty? 123

6. Evaluating the JTPA 125

7. Evaluating the Job Corps and Other Youth Programs 129

8. Training Programs and Tagging 133

9. Welfare to Work: Work First 134

10. Employer-Based Subsidies 136

11. Concluding Remarks 140

12. Further Reading 140

13. Questions for Discussion 140

14. Appendix: Adjusting for Program Nonparticipation 141

Chapter 6: Family Composition 143

1. Births to Single Mothers 144

2. Declining Marriage 146

3. Changing Social Attitudes 150

4. The Role of Welfare 156

5. Features of Welfare 158

6. Teenage Childbearing 161

7. Effects of Growing Up with a Single Parent 168

8. Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty 172

9. Policies Aimed at Infants and Toddlers 174

10. Preschool Programs 177

11. Programs for School-Age Children 182

12. Medicaid and SCHIP 190

13. Concluding Remarks 192

14. Further Reading 194

15. Questions for Discussion 196

Chapter 7: Concentrated Poverty 197

1. Life in High-Poverty Neighborhoods 198

2. Do Neighborhoods Matter? 198

3. The Gautreaux Program 201

4. Moving to Opportunity 202

5. Public Housing 203

6. Gangs 205

7. Community Development 206

8. Concluding Remarks 208

9. Further Reading 209

10. Questions for Discussion 210

Chapter 8: Education and Education Reform 211

1. Education and Earnings 212

2. Testing 213

3. Decentralization and School Quality 221

4. Using Tests to Increase School and District Accountability 236

5. Concluding Remarks 239

6. Further Reading 240

7. Questions for Discussion 241

Chapter 9: Welfare Reform 243

1. The Case for Reform 243

2. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 245

3. Assessing the Effects of Welfare Reform 251

4. Effect on Welfare Receipt 252

5. Welfare Reform and Well-Being 254

6. Living Arrangements 258

7. Effects on Children and Adolescents 259

8. Concluding Thoughts 259

9. Further Reading 260

10. Questions for Discussion 261


Chapter 10: Discrimination: Theory 265

1. What Is Discrimination? 265

2. Theories of Discrimination: Prejudice 269

3. Prejudice in Imperfect Labor Markets 272

4. Transaction Costs Models 273

5. Statistical Discrimination 274

6. Self-Confirming Expectations 277

7. Concluding Remarks 280

8. Further Reading 281

9. Questions for Discussion 282

Chapter 11: Race Discrimination in the Labor Market 283

1. Trends in Black-White Earnings Differentials 283

2. Explaining the Decline in the Wage Gap 287

3. Evidence on Current Discrimination 293

4. Testing for Discrimination: Legal Perspectives 307

5. Affirmative Action in Employment 311

6. Affirmative Action in Public Employment 313

7. Concluding Remarks 314

8. Further Reading 315

9. Questions for Discussion 316

Chapter 12: Race Discrimination and Education 317

1. The Black-White Test Score Gap 317

2. Discrimination in Education 325

3. Affirmative Action in Education 330

4. Concluding Remarks 332

5. Further Reading 333

6. Questions for Discussion 333

Chapter 13: Race Discrimination in Customer Markets and the Judicial System 334

1. Housing 335

2. Discrimination in Other Markets 345

3. Discrimination in the Justice System 349

4. Concluding Remarks 351

5. Further Reading 352

6. Questions for Discussion 352

Chapter 14: Sex Discrimination 354

1. Theory 354

2. Is There Discrimination against Women in the Labor Market? 360

3. Discrimination, Marriage, and Children 364

4. Sexual Orientation 366

5. Trends in the Female/Male Wage Ratio 368

6. Comparable Worth 373

7. Concluding Remarks 375

8. Further Reading 377

9. Questions for Discussion 378

Chapter 15: Conclusion: An Agenda to Decrease Poverty and Discrimination? 379

1. The Value and Limits of Research 379

2. The Value and Limits of a Strong Labor Market 381

3. Family and Early Childhood Programs 383

4. Education 385

5. Addressing the Needs of High-Poverty Neighborhoods 385

6. Race Discrimination and Inequality 386

7. Addressing Inequality 387

8. Health Care 388

9. Concluding Remarks 388

Author Index 391

Subject Index 395

What People are Saying About This


Kevin Lang's new textbook on poverty and discrimination is at once lucid, rigorous, and topical. He shows how the conceptual insights of modern economic theory can be combined with state-of-the-art statistical techniques in order to answer the questions, 'What do we know about poverty and how do we know it?' This elegant, learned, and highly accessible book will, I predict, exert a major and beneficial influence in the years ahead on the study of poverty and discrimination in the United States.
Glenn C. Loury, author of "The Anatomy of Racial Inequality"


This book provides a theoretically grounded and empirically up-to-date review of both economic research and economic policies related to poverty and discrimination. It is a welcome contribution reflecting Kevin Lang's broad knowledge of both the massive academic literature and current policy debates.
Joshua D. Angrist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Kevin Lang is engaging and always thought-provoking, and he covers a lot of ground. I don't agree with him on all issues, but that is really the point of the book—to show that reasonable people can differ on some of the most important social issues of our day and then give students the tools to assess arguments critically and make their own decisions. This book is an excellent resource for any class on poverty issues.
Janet M. Currie, author of "The Invisible Safety Net: Protecting the Nation's Poor Children and Families"


This volume will be an extraordinarily helpful tool for anyone teaching in the field of poverty and discrimination. It assembles the latest data, weaves it together with competing theories, and highlights the policy options and dilemmas that we struggle with in the United States. We have not had a textbook like this in decades and it will be a tremendous asset to students and faculty alike.
Katherine S. Newman, author of "Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market"


Poverty and Discrimination provides a wide-ranging discussion of all the aspects of social policy that are related to economic disadvantage, from welfare programs to education to labor markets, with a particular emphasis on discrimination. The text provides an excellent overview of facts, of research results, and of policy debates. Interspersed in this discussion are many good lessons in data analysis and research methodology. This book is a great reference and review of many areas and will work as an excellent text for undergraduate and graduate-level courses on poverty, inequality, or discrimination.
Rebecca M. Blank, University of Michigan

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