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Entertaining the poor

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Friday, Feb 23, 2007

Building off the finding that low-income workers work fewer hours than higher-income workers, this post at The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog floats the idea that the problem with the poor is not that they’re lazy but that their entertainment has become too affordable:


In America since the 1970’s, the relative returns to low-skilled labour have markedly declined.  At the same time, the value of leisure has skyrocketed, thanks to improved entertainment opportunities.  Even a poor family can afford a television, a cheap DVD player, and a subscription to Netflix; they are also highly likely to have cable.  Thanks to cheap airfare, they may also be able to fly somewhere better than their backyard for vacation.
A 1970’s high-school educated worker looking at the tradeoff between work and leisure might be thinking:  “the price of a steak, versus an hour watching the grass grow and arguing with my wife.”  These days, the calculation is more like:  “the price of some terrible fast food, against an hour of watching scantily clad women bouncing around on cable.”  Small surprise that they are choosing to consume more free time.


This strikes me as a variation on that favorite refutation of the problem posed by income inequality, what Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has dubbed the Playstation proof: that measures of income don’t necessarily account for all the quality-of-life improvements now taken for granted and how much more purchasing power there is in even a small income relative to horse-and-buggy days. And it can skew ideologically in opposite directions, as a criticism of the deeply unfulfilling work the poor reject in favor of entertainment or as a conjecture that the poor are not merely lazy but are perhaps too easily entertained—their modicum of ambition is too easily subsumed by diverting distractions. The observation doesn’t seem to lead to any useful policy prescriptions: “We need to make poverty more unpleasant. The poor are enjoying themselves far too much.” Or “Poverty is not really a problem: see, they have Netflix.” And that’s not even considering potential problems with the initial premise that the fewer hours the poor are working is a matter of choice: what about the “reserve army of the poor”? What about the unpaid hours logged in transportation and what not? Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed does a pretty good job demonstrating how everything in lower-class life has elements of logistical hassle to it, even before one considers the psychological burdens of relative deprivation, the lack of any form of safety net and the forced improvisations of life at society’s margins.

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