William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Falls-Disproportionately-On-The-Poor Fallacy

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Still on the road; something quick.

Like the good Bishop said, and said well, “If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell: literally.” The poor figure in two of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. For those with check-sheets, these are: murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their just wages.

Serious business, then, the poor. So important that we must strive to understand what we mean when we say “The Poor”? Who are these unfortunates?

We’ve all heard the quip, unfortunately not apocryphal, of the politician who laments that, despite the best, intensive, and expensive efforts of the government, fifty-percent of all individuals still make less than the median income. Yet less appreciated is that the same asininity occurs regardless which quantile is used.

The problem of defining “The Poor” relatively is that they will then always be with us. Nothing short of perfect and exact equality for all—each and every, no exceptions, all as in all, as in even you, my dear, even leaders—which is impossible in practice, can eliminate “The Poor” when they are defined relatively.

If being poor is relative, poverty cannot and will not be eliminated. The benefit of this definition is that there will always be something for activists and the government to do, a permanent goal to progress towards with increasing vigor, but one which is ever receding and unattainable. Defining poverty relatively is thus a form of cultural insanity and a guarantee of misery.

So who are the real poor? Well, that’s difficult. The same person can be poor at one time and not-poor another, vice versa, and so on (see Thomas Sowell). Knowing who is an official member of The Poor is an imperfect science. Maybe that’s why the same religion that insists one must care for the poor says to love your neighbour and not The People™. You’re in a much better position to know what’s going on in your own family and with real neighbors—you know who really needs what—than you are with some amorphous mass of strangers. Indeed, if the bulk of us took this commandment to heart, and looked after those closest to us, we could do real good and never have to worry about The People™.

One thing is clear: poor people have fewer resources at their command than the rich. It’s a gross simplification, but useful shorthand, and anyway true, to say that poor people have less money. Careful! Money is relative—the absolute amount of it is not fixed and there is no objective standard to say a dollar or a yen means this level of poverty—so the danger of lapsing into poor-as-relative is real. Stay alert.

We’re finally to the fallacy, which is in the class of informal fallacies. Headlines like this appear with depressing frequency: “Fuel Prices Rise: Poor Hurt,” “World Ends: Women, Minorities, the Poor Hardest Hit.” This first is logically equivalent to “Fuel Prices Rise: Everybody Who Buys Fuel Will Now Pay More”. Since the poor have less money, and the poor like to be as warm as everybody else, they will of course pay a greater relative amount of their wealth than the rich. But if heating does indeed cost more, than nothing can be done to prevent this. And when the world ends, we all go, poor and rich alike.
Raise the price on anything and it follows that the poor will pay relatively higher amounts of their wealth—unless the price is raised so that the rich by design pay a higher proportion of their wealth, which happens only with the government and taxes. Enforced equality.

The “Falls disproportionately on the poor” is thus a variant on the ad misericordiam, the appeal to pity. It is a fallacy if it is used to imply that something need be done (by, say, government) because the cost increase falls “disproportionately” on the poor. As said, unless the cost increase is gauged so that it increases more, not relatively but absolutely, for those with less, which is unheard of, the increase will not be disproportionately against the poor (though it is true as said any fixed increase, by definition, will cost the poor a greater percent of their wealth).

All uses of the fallacy are restating what amounts to the tautology “The Poor have less money than the rich.” And it never goes toward solving what it means to “be poor,” how being poor is defined absolutely, not relatively. Indeed, the fallacy is usually used to argue the poor should have a product or service the absence of which would not make somebody poor absolutely.

12 Comments

  1. It’s also the case that the wealth created by capitalism also falls disproportionately on the poor. When products and services get cheaper, those with less money benefit more. This would sound bizarre to many. Yet, if you go to McDonalds or Walmart or Motel 6, you can see for yourself that, thanks to capitalism, today’s poor can travel, can eat out, and can buy many, many things that the poor of 50 years ago could not.

  2. 50% will always be poorer than the average.

  3. You can still find vehicles in the $1k range. They aren’t very good. You aren’t buying leather seats, working air conditioning, or a viable speedometer, but there is a good chance they will get you from point A to point B.

    My current vehicle has a book value of < $200. I joke that I will have to pay the insurance company to take it from me if someone hits me. It still starts. It still moves. It still gets me to work and back. Occasionally I have to put some money into it. I just put a battery in that was worth as much as blue book says my car is worth.

  4. ”Who are these unfortunates?”

    First, the definition vary from country to country.

    Here in America a poor is someone that can’t afford the basic necessities and services which includes food, housing, clothing, health care, education, which represent the first level of the Maslow hierarchy, and a little bit of the seconds.

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

    I don’t remember having ever heard a politician talking about the poor complaining that they made less than the average income. They usually talk about the fact that some people have an income below the threshold of sustainable living.

    Sustainable living income falls far below than the median income and his about 25k a year for a family of four while median is around 50k.

  5. about 25k a year for a family of four

    A meaningless number that varies with time. When I started working $25K/yr was a really good salary. Inflation is what changed that. Giving people more money or goods just increases inflation. The only cure is to combat inflation and not increase it by tossing money where it won’t produce anything but more inflation. This is guaranteed when money in its many forms is doled out without a corresponding increase in generated wealth. Riding the Purple Wage is the Socialist’s idiotic dream. Solves nothing while making things worse.

  6. It’s probably best to use objective measures. Does an individual have access to basic housing and heating? Does the individual have the capacity to afford clothing and healthy food? Does the individual have access to clean water? Does the person have access to health care?

    If you fail any of these checks, you fall below the poverty line.

    This is not, though, a definition of “poor”, which in some sense must always be relative. A poor person in a Western country today enjoys a better standard of living based on the above criteria, than, say, King Henry the VIII did in his time.

    A poverty measure sounds useful. A relative definition for ‘the poor’ less so.

  7. I should probably add that “capacity to afford” is important. E.g., “Does not have” should not be confused with “capacity to afford”. Otherwise, one falls foul of the danger of confusing mental health care issues, with poverty abatement.

  8. “so that the rich by design pay a higher proportion of their wealth, which happens only with the government and taxes. Enforced equality.”

    Be careful. If it were equality, then everyone would pay an equal amount — everyone would pay the same amount — no matter their wealth or income. Equality would hurt the poor the hardest (however they are defined).

    Further, the US government taxes by income, not net worth or assets, so even if I were a millionaire, if I make no money this year then I would pay no taxes. Being a millionaire, would I be rich; or having no income, would I be poor?

  9. When people refer to inequality they almost always mean inequality in terms of asset ownership. If you earn no income in one year, because your assets did not generate income or the income was realised indirectly as company profit, went into a trust, or got translated into some form of capitalisation, you are still regarded as ‘rich’ if your net worth substantially exceeds the mean.

  10. I don’t see the “fallacy” here…

    JMJ

  11. Alan McIntire

    April 1, 2015 at 8:32 am

    :Hans Erren
    MARCH 31, 2015 AT 11:31 AM
    50% will always be poorer than the average.”

    You’re either measuring the median income or assuming a “normal” distribution of income. In the real world, a majority of people have incomes BELOW the arithmetic average. Sort of like Lake Woebegone in reverse.

  12. Reminds me of Time Bandits.

    Robin Hood: The poor are going to be absolutely thrilled. Have you met them at all?
    Randall: Who?
    Robin Hood: The poor.
    Randall: The poor?
    Robin Hood: Oh you must meet them. I’m sure you’ll like them. Of course they haven’t got two pennies to rub together but that’s because… they’re poor.
    Robin Hood: Oh yes and believe you me, the poor are going to be, well not just absolutely thrilled, but also considerably less poor, aren’t they?

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