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The more poverty changes, the more reformers stay the same

October 9, 2010

Or maybe vice versa.

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses NYC’s efforts to get food stamp recipients to stop drinking sugary beverages and concludes:

I’m willing to be swayed, but this feels like something that was cooked up in a lab without any consideration for ordinary human nature. This is not a math formula. You need to convince actual, living, breathing people.

The 19th century English reformer/statistician who helped create the concept of a poverty line calculated the income you’d need to live healthily on the cheapest, most nutritious food available: legumes. Some 30% of the population couldn’t buy enough legumes to thrive, and he called these the “primary poor.”

But an equally large group he called the “secondary poor.” These were the people who’d be fine if they didn’t insist on having one steak meal a week. The reformer felt nothing but opprobrium for these people.

Anyway, the early welfare state sure wasn’t going to give people more than the minimum income necessary to maintain their health. And so a large portion of the British citizenry chose malnourishment over foregoing meat.

Some morals:

1) Poor people haven’t changed much in a century and a half, but that doesn’t mean bien pensants are any closer to understanding them

2) Quantitative social science is the handmaiden of the modern state

3) Quantification necessitates – but obscures – moral judgement!


DISCLAIMER: I learnt all of this last night as I was falling asleep to James Vernon’s lectures on “The Peculiar Modernity of Britain.” (available here or on iTunes U). Point being: you should probably listen to it for yourself rather than trust me on this.


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