Wrong, revisited

by Russ Roberts on June 14, 2009

in Uncategorized

In response to this post, a lot of comments discussed inequality.

It is easy to confuse inequality and absolute well-being.

If the income of poor people is growing at 3% a year and that of rich people 5% year, then inequality will grow. But the poor will be doing much better. In fact, in roughly a generation—25 years—if that trend continues, the poor will double their material well-being.

The chart I discussed in that earlier post is not just about inequality. Let me show the chart again, and the lesson that Justin Wolfers at Freakonomics wanted the reader to from it:

Agraph

Wolfers talks about inequality growing. But that's not the key point. Here is the key point as he describes it:

Economic growth since the mid-1970’s just hasn’t delivered much for many families. Read the full Goldin and Katz posting, over at VoxEU, for a deeper understanding of why. (Hint: It’s education.)

In light of this, perhaps there’s no paradox in the fact that happiness hasn’t grown in the U.S. since the 1970’s.
Rather than inferring that growing income doesn’t raise happiness,
these data remind us that for most of the distribution there hasn’t
been much income growth.

Here is what I wrote:

The chart is highly misleading. It implies that poor people have done poorly while rich people have thrived. Rich people have thrived. But so have poor people.

I care about how poor people—say the two bottom quartiles—are doing in absolute terms. The chart implies they are making no progress. The chart implies that if you were poor in 1973, you're still desperately poor a generation later.

I have seen longitudinal data that says this is grossly inaccurate (don't have at hand–will try to find it.) But the simpler point is that this chart implies that poor people have made no progress. But the chart is meaningless. Because it is not the same people, because it ignores the enormous demographic changes since 1973 because of the increase in divorce, this chart does not address the question of whether poor people have shared in the tremendous economic growth of the last 35 years.

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LowcountryJoe June 14, 2009 at 11:50 am

I posted this link in the last "Wrong" post. I'll do it again in this one. I'll keep doing it until it hurts. The data being discussed is crap and the link below will explain why if you take the time to check it out or check it out for a second time if you've already seen it.

http://www.american.com/archive/2008/july-august-magazine-contents/how-are-we-doing

pi June 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I believe a number of studies have found that people are less concerned about absolute wealth and more concerned about relative wealth. So in terms of happiness, due to this extensive envy that seems to be prevalent, maybe utilitarians should indeed focus on reducing the wealth of the rich and not bother trying to promote wealth for the poor.

Daniel June 14, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Hi Russ, a couple of studies on social mobility:

http://www.treas.gov/offices/tax-policy/library/incomemobilitystudy03-08revise.pdf
http://www.dallasfed.org/fed/annual/1999p/ar95.pdf

In 16 years 29% of people in the bottom quintile moved up to the highest quintile in income. That's pretty spectacular if you consider that income inequality actually *rose*. (If the income distribution is more egalitarian it's of course easier to move to a higher quintile.)

Steve Horwitz June 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Russ and others:

The data you are looking for Russ can be found here, on my "Contemporary Economic Myths" webpage: http://myslu.stlawu.edu/~shorwitz/Good/myths.htm

The specific data on mobility is down a ways.

Steve Horwitz June 14, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Another way of looking at Russ's point that what matters is how the lowest quintiles are doing is to examine the consumption of the poorest 20% of households. The data there are clear as well: poor households in 2002 had more "stuff" in them than the *average* household did in 1971. And by "stuff," I don't mean just frivolous things, I mean basics like refrigerators etc..

See the chart embedded in this talk of mine here: http://myslu.stlawu.edu/~shorwitz/mackay06.htm

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

pi wrote,

"maybe utilitarians should indeed focus on reducing the wealth of the rich…"

He's the only to have taken my challenge, to tell us what he would do about inequality. For everybody else here, inequality has been like the weather, with everybody talking about it nobody doing anything about it.

I'm still asking the rest of you.

What would you do about it?

Would you all do what pi suggests?

If not, what?

And, if nothing, why even bother to talk about it?

John Dewey June 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

pi: "I believe a number of studies have found that people are less concerned about absolute wealth and more concerned about relative wealth."

pi, do such studies really measure happiness and utility preferences? What people say they would prefer – and what really makes them more happy – are likely to be two very different things. Survey questions have revealed strong feelings of envy among Americans. But such survey questions are far too simple to capture the true feelings of those being surveyed.

If you ask the average American:

"Would you be willing to give up your weekday evenings and Saturdays for 20 years in order to finally reach a salary level of $300K, with a 3% chance of earning several million annually?"

most will tell you their free time is too valuable. When Americans understand what is generally required to achieve high incomes, envy will be diminished.

Researchers rarely give enough information in their surveys to enable true preferences to be revealed. Instead, they present simple but unrealistically silly choices.

Greg Ransom June 14, 2009 at 1:18 pm

"The poor" are now about 30% Mexican and Latin American immigrants — a majority are in America illegally.

As a category "The Poor" are an every changing group of people from outside the country — who are moving massively _UP_ the relative wealth charts by their very move to America.

This is an international issue — and its another classic economists dishonesty to treat it simply in terms of the "closed economy". The same fallacy the Keynesians have invoked in pushing their pseud-scientific business cycle and monetary theory idiocies.

Greg Ransom June 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm

What matters is the _status_ game.

You don't have to know a lick of Darwinian biology or anthropology or sociology to know that status concerns are at the core of this whole political issue.

At least a handful of economists have begun to look at this is a wider context.

More need to.

What the leftist care about is status — most especially the Ivy League academics who have dumber but extremely rich school friends on Wall Street.

LowcountryJoe June 14, 2009 at 1:27 pm

>>I'm still asking the rest of you.

What would you do about it?<<

I'd do nothing and let the market machanism do what it does.

>>Would you all do what pi suggests?

If not, what?<<

Only in jest as I am sure pi has done. In fact, it may be a good idea for politicians of the more laissez-faire mind [there are some that pay the concept lip-service but I'm not sure how many would be safe enough to drop their statesmen demeanors and adopt satire] to suggest things like this. It has been done before with the Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Act of 2009.

>>And, if nothing, why even bother to talk about it?<<

Come on; you know why this is discussed. Because legislators discuss it and repsond to their consituients that discuss it. That discussion leads to wrongly held belives and biases that , in turn, lead these idiots to legislative action with the support of the idiotic majority of voters. It does seem like an uphill battle to combat the ignorance that leads to the discussion in the first place but if we're not willing to discuss and discredit this bogus data ourselves, the consequences will be certain to play out.

LowcountryJoe June 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm

>>You don't have to know a lick of Darwinian biology or anthropology or sociology to know that status concerns are at the core of this whole political issue.<<

That's the really strange thing, though. I can recall at no other time in my lifetime my ability to rub elbows with people who are very wealthy. For example, I just got back from a week-long vacation at Siesta Key, FL and ate dinner at an elegant place on the water front overlooking the intercostal waterway. I am sure, based on the other diners present, that some of them were among the top 5% income earners or wealth holders. And there I was, just a mere high school teacher, having dinner with them. Granted, I'm somewhat lighter in the wallet for it, but I do not recall my parents doing the kind of things and going to the places with the frequency that I find myself doing them. I don't think that I am so different, either, in my experiences; I bet that a lot of middle-class Americans are doing similar things more often than ever before. But most are probably just too damned pessimistic to every stop and consider it.

Mark LeBar June 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm

dg lesvic wrote:

He's the only to have taken my challenge, to tell us what he would do about inequality. For everybody else here, inequality has been like the weather, with everybody talking about it nobody doing anything about it.

The question is what there is anything to be done about, and why? What exactly is the nature of the concern about inequalities, measured in any form? Is it that people just don't like the idea? There have been lots of ideas that people just don't like (for example, the idea that some people should be nature be slaves of others) that we've figured out just ought not to be pandered to. Since the problem here is obviously not that those in the direst conditions are being made worse off in absolute terms, just what is the problem supposed to be, and why would any decent person care?

Jack of Spades June 14, 2009 at 2:02 pm

"The data there are clear as well: poor households in 2002 had more "stuff" in them than the *average* household did in 1971. And by "stuff," I don't mean just frivolous things, I mean basics like refrigerators etc.."

Steve is right about this of course, but I think the point is even stronger than it looks at a glance. It's often pointed out that a century ago only the extremely wealthy could own a car. So back then, the difference between rich and poor was driving or walking. Now, the difference between rich and poor is simply how fancy the car you drive happens to be. The rich in America today can spend $80,000 on a car which has a slick design, fancy electronic features and shiny spinning rims, but at the end of the day it still gets them from A to B virtually the same as any other vehicle.

dg lesvic, you asked that if one thinks nothing should be done about relative inequality, then why bother to talk about it. The reason is that many — perhaps most? — people in America instictively think that inequality is a problem and that we must therefore "do something" about it. So those of us who happen to believe that inequality is not a necessarily problem and therefore does not call for action are obliged to explain why this is the case.

John Dewey says that "When Americans understand what is generally required to achieve high incomes, envy will be diminished." I'm not as confident that this would happen. You can fully recognize that what someone else has is due to the level of sacrifice they put into it's attainment, and also admit that you wouldn't be willing to make that sacrifice yourself, and still be envious of them. Indeed, I suspect that at least some envy is due to that very recognition, that they were willing to put in more effort than you were.

vidyohs June 14, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Dglesvic,

The only rational thing to do is to make sure that everyone who desires opportunity can find search for it, and every one that sees opportunity can go for it, equal opportunity across the board.

No one of us should be in the position, or put ourself in the position, of deciding for others what opportunity is or what to do with it when they see it.

An individual's income inequality virtually always reflects his ambition or effort inequality, he simply isn't looking hard and working hard.

Nathanael Snow June 14, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Isn't this what the first 10-15 minutes of your conversation with Thomas Sowell was about?

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Prof Horwitz,

It's great to have you here, and hope to see more of you.

I'm sure that you, as a Misesian, understand the irrlevance of data, if not to the presentation of economic theory, to the theory itself.

And I'm sure, too, that you get the point of my question:

Assuming inequality, which is not an impossibility, what would you do about it?

If nothing, what would you say to those who would do something, and, specifically, try to redistribute it away?

You and I have had this discussion before, and I am sure that at least some of the folks here would like to have your opinion, in your own words.

Andrew_M_Garland June 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Because people hate inequality so much, shouldn't we outlaw lotteries? (smile)

The result of a lottery is to create instant inequality by taking the wealth of the many poor, to heap it upon a few, for no more reason than blind luck.

I'm surprised that the State would decide to profit from this, even making lotteries a State monopoly.

Doesn't the State care about the feelings and happiness of the people?

Steve Horwitz June 14, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Mr. Lesvic,

Data illustrates theories, and we need theories to analyze data. Mises understood that.

The existence of inequality is, by itself, not a matter of concern for policy. The fact that the US is not becoming more unequal is of interest, as others have repeatedly noted here, for engaging in political debate with those who would attack the market for supposedly producing high degrees of inequality.

If defenders of the market can say to them "no, it doesn't," then perhaps those critics of the market might be less critical.

I am sure that you, as someone supposedly committed to libertarianism, can understand why it might be nice to be able to provide evidence that the claims of critics of markets are wrong and move freedom forward. Or perhaps you aren't all that interested in freedom?

That said, I totally agree with Russ in that I'm much more concerned about how markets do for the poorest among us than how they affect inequality. I'd gladly take a less equal society in which the poorest were better off than a more egalitarian one in which they were worse off. That's why my data on inequality are always accompanied by the data on the well-being of the poorest Americans. The combination is reinforcing.

K Ackermann June 14, 2009 at 3:29 pm

What would you do about it?

There is nothing to do about it. I don't know what all this talk of envy is, poor people are just like everybody else. They want a job, and they want to whoop it up every once in a while. A few beers, a nagging wife, a couple of brats…

I don't know a single well educated person who is downright poor, and I don't know a single poor person who envies an educated person. Everyone grumbles about the weather, but it's not like poor people are sitting around having hissy fits that they missed out on education or blaming society for conspiring against them.

The only difference between someone making $7.00 and hour and someone making $25 an hour is one of them might have a 401k. Both are living pretty much hand to mouth.

If either one can't find a job, they become depressed and feel worthless. Jobs make people much more happy than not having a job.

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Prof Horwitz,

Would there be anything wrong with simply saying that the redistributive policies intended to reduce inequality are counterproductive, specifically, that taking from the rich to give to the poor doesn't reduce but increases income inequality?

Is there any reason why you wouldn't simply that?

Jacob Oost June 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

More to the point, incomes alone don't tell us anything about a person's standard of living. The same income, even adjusted for inflation, from 1975, would provide a much higher standard of living today as the costs of life-enhancing technologies have come down and down (thanks to the workings of the market).

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I meant, why you simply wouldn't say that.

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Sorry, again, I meant to say

why you wouldn't simply say that.

Steve Horwitz June 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm

If I had the evidence to demonstrate it, of course I would say it. And I suspect it might be true. But that's not the evidence I have in front of me. That evidence only suggests that the whole variety of factors in play in the current mixed economy aren't increasing inequality. I can't isolate the effects of redistributive policies sufficiently clearly to make the claim that you want me to.

It is not, no matter what you say, a matter that can be settled a priori.

K Ackermann June 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm

dg lesvic, can you tell us your reasoning behind your assertion so we can think of counterexamples on where it might not be true?

muirgeo June 14, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Real simple question not even having to address the denial of increasing income inequality we see here. Which of the two economic growth patterns is preferable?

The one between 1947 and 1973 where growth for ALL quintiles was greater then 2% or the period from 1973 to 2005 where NONE of the quintiles saw growth greater then 2%.

It amazes me that everyone here is defending the latter period of poor growth as inconsequential.

Call me stupid but I'll take better growth even if it means the rich don't get a greater share and everyone sees there income rise in concert.

dg lesvic June 14, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Prof Horwitz,

Here is the beginning of the apriori argument.

Taking from the rich to give to the poor doesn’t just draw money but manpower downward upon the hierarchy of production, and the manpower faster than the money. For manpower doesn’t merely follow money but anticipates it. And, with manpower and competition among the poor increasing faster than the redistributed money, they’ll be poorer than they would have been without it.

Why does it draw manpower downward? At the line between rich and poor, but one penny of income separates them. Since drawing it from rich to poor makes the poor rich and the rich poor, it must also draw manpower, at the margin between them, from the jobs above it to those below.

To restore the manpower allocations it preferred, the market must bid the net wages of the taxed, undersupplied occupations of the rich back up, and of the subsidized and oversupplied of the poor back down, until the previous net incomes are restored, with no proportional gain for the poor, and, after the interruption of production, an absolute loss for both rich and poor.

And, if the market anticipated increasing rates of redistribution, it would bid the net wages of the rich even higher and of the poor even lower than before, increasing inequality and “social injustice.”

muirgeo June 14, 2009 at 5:32 pm

"It is easy to confuse inequality and absolute well-being.
……

I care about how poor people—say the two bottom quartiles—are doing in absolute terms."
RR

Based on this I would assume you must prefer the superior growth of the first period over the not so great growth of the second period.

Russ Roberts June 14, 2009 at 5:44 pm

muirgeo,

You seem to have missed the point of my post.

The chart tells you NOTHING about how people are doing. The simple conclusion you draw does not follow from the chart. It appears to follow. But the conclusion you have drawn from the chart is not legitimate because of the demographic changes I've mentioned. Your point may be true. But the chart doesn't show it.

Steve Horwitz June 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Muirgeo:

Repeat after me:

The quintiles are not the same year to year or decade to decade or period to period.

Thus drawing conclusions about how "the poor" did by looking at comparative statics tells us nothing about the question of whether individual poor households are better off now than before. To do that, we need household tracking data. Such data exists and shows that, in fact, to take one example, of the poorest quintile in 1976, 95% of the households were no longer in that quintile in 1991.

That's what Russ and I are talking about when we care about the well-being of the lowest quintile(s). The graph in this post tells us nothing about that question.

MWG June 14, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Prof. Horwitz, Could you dumb it down just a little bit more for muirgeo. Maybe talk about a lemonade stand or little kids who receive allowance from mommy and daddy.

vikingvista June 14, 2009 at 6:48 pm

"And, if nothing, why even bother to talk about it?"

The only reason to talk about it is to gain political support for legalized theft, and to gain political support to try to stop the thieves.

I see people still responding to this murgio character. But I can't for the life of me understand why people continue to read his posts. Is there really a significant population of such badly confused Cafe Hayek readers out there that you are trying to reach?

brotio June 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm

"Call me stupid…" – Yasafi

There's no need to. You make that point every time you hit the Post button.

Greg Ransom June 14, 2009 at 11:18 pm

The "lowest quintile" keeps being filled and replaced by imigrants & illegals.

30% of the "poor" are non-natives from Mexico and Latin America & their children.

These folks have moved UP in relative wealth measured against their original national peers due to their move to American.

The "closed economy" mentality of the economists and academics is an embarrassment to the Ivory Tower folks.

muirgeo June 14, 2009 at 11:46 pm

It doesn't look to me like the PSID data supports your claims.

Wealth gap is increasing, U-M study shows
ANN ARBOR, Mich.

The rich really are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, a new University of Michigan study shows.

The study—the most recent available analysis of long-term wealth trends among U.S. households—is based on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) since 1968.

dg lesvic June 15, 2009 at 12:21 am

Muirgeo,

As Professor Horwitz stated,

"Data illustrates theories, and we need theories to analyze data."

Where is your theory?

Your data without theory is nothing but superstition.

MWG June 15, 2009 at 12:29 am

"The rich really are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer…"
-muir

Think about what you're saying. The poor are getting poorer compared to 1968? Think about the homes of today in terms of size and amenities. Think cell phones, computers, cable television, cars all of which many of the poor in the US own.

brotio June 15, 2009 at 12:33 am

"Think about what you're saying."

LMAO! :D

Gil June 15, 2009 at 1:50 am

"If the income of poor people is growing at 3% a year and that of rich people 5% year, then inequality will grow."

Oops! It looks as though Russ Roberts has sunk your 'masterstroke' dg lesvic!

MWG June 15, 2009 at 1:57 am

"Think about what you're saying."

LMAO! :D
-Brotio

Touche.

dg lesvic June 15, 2009 at 2:04 am

How is that, Gil?

Gil June 15, 2009 at 2:44 am

Russ Roberts shows how inequality can/does rise in a free market. Since everyone is unequal, inequality ought to rise relative to a Socialist Dictatorship. It's just like handicapping in sports, it there's to equalise the players. Non-handicapping would allow for maximum inequality. Russ Roberts has sunk your'battleship', it's time reset the pieces, old paint.

vikingvista June 15, 2009 at 3:34 am

"Russ Roberts shows how inequality can/does rise in a free market."

Can you quote Roberts to support this? I've read through this thread a couple of times now and all I can find is Roberts giving examples of why the chart is meaningless, not whether its conclusions, or your statement, are true or false.

John Galt June 15, 2009 at 3:39 am

Steve Horwitz:
"Muirgeo:
Repeat after me:"

Yeah. Good luck with that!

Gil June 15, 2009 at 3:39 am

"It is easy to confuse inequality and absolute well-being.

If the income of poor people is growing at 3% a year and that of rich people 5% year, then inequality will grow. But the poor will be doing much better. In fact, in roughly a generation—25 years—if that trend continues, the poor will double their material well-being."

muirgeo June 15, 2009 at 5:36 am

"Think about what you're saying."

LMAO! :D
-Brotio

Touche.

Posted by: MWG

Hey I'm not the one arguing for the low growth period.

Steve and Russ both deferred to answer my question as did everyone else here. That's because the answer is obvious. Any reasonable person would choose the period of increased growth over the period od lesser growth…. unless your trying to hide or protect something.

So yeah.. think about what you are saying.

Gil June 15, 2009 at 7:42 am

Sorry muirgeo but I have a conspiracy fear that the lack of super-duper growth as seen in the 20th century is due to the Law of Diminishing Returns versus various technoogies 'hitting a wall'. For those who lived through WW2 to see in 1969 the Saturn V rocket take off for the Moon must have seem magical and humanity is on the brink of interstellar travel such that by the year 2000 we'd all live the same way as George Jetson. How many of those who lived then and are alive now sigh as space flight technology has barely budged since the '60s? If NASA were to send another rocket to the Moon the computers would heaps faster and smaller but the engines would be pretty much the same.

By the same token, has not technology improvement slowed down because the next generation is no longer 'that much better' than the previous generation? Is '00s car magically better than a '90s car? Many '90s cars have computers in them and are rather fuel efficient and how many people who own a '90s car don't feel like trading it because it still runs well and the improvements in a '00s don't make it worth trading in just for the sake of 'it's newer'. So may it be with other technologies hitting a wall where better isn't that much better. Hence the change in the standard of living from 1900 to 1950 was significant so too was the change from 1950 to 2000. However the change from 2000 to 2050 may not be that spetacular as most of the stuff that will be there already exist today (cars, mobile phones, computers, roads, air-conditioning, TVs, etc.).

If technological growth in the next fifty years is going to be at a snail's pace for most areas then theoretically the economic growth won't be much chop either. A great danger is that most of the current hype of future innovations seems 'horizontal' – petrol cars are set to be replaced by electric cars. Big whoop! A car is still a car and an electric car doesn't confer much benefit over a petrol car other than a quiet motor and no air pollution. However an electric car industry won't necessarily 'create' jobs but transfer jobs of those who build and service petrol cars. Heck! Electric may cost jobs as electric motors have no real reason to foul up!

I know people such as yourself, muirgeo, 'growth' is the answer (Steve "The Skeptical Optimist" Conover is another) but where is this growth going to come from? Unless true space travel can be developed that will allow future generations to access more and more resources then we're going to be swirling the same old resources around and around in circles.

indiana jim June 15, 2009 at 8:09 am

Gil,

I think you are missing a key source of growth in your focus on space travel.

Even if nothing new were produced, wealth can rise as a result of increased trade between people. Ebay, Angie's list, etc are engines of growth. They lower the costs to transfer resources from lower to higher valued users. And of course new things are being produced, so the other engine of growth you ignore is specialization according to comparative advantage.

Steve Horwitz June 15, 2009 at 8:42 am

Murigeo:

It's also possible that they growth numbers are disguising the real gains people are making. If you're nostalgic for the 50s and 60s, you might want to take a look at this:

http://www.reason.com/news/show/133222.html

Here's the full version:

http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/Nostalgianomics.pdf

Eric Hammer June 15, 2009 at 9:56 am

I wonder how much of the increase in inequality is due in part to being able to "get by" on much lower levels of income relative to what the top is capable of producing/consuming.

It seems to me that even among the well educated there is quite a gap between what one could earn as salary, and what some choose. For instance, my wife has a friend who chagned jobs 4-6 times within 3 years of graduation, quickly reaching a point where he earned 70+K$ a year, with really very little skill. However, he lives in high rent neighborhoods, buys expensive new cars frequently, and generally blows through a large percent of his income.
Compare to someone, say myself, who prefers to live in lower expense areas, drives used cars until they die, and is relatively frugal. Despite having a lower salary, I still have all the same basic utility. To really push it, I could probably get all the same utility on 35-40K$ a year. Were I willing to give up some expensive hobbies, I could get by comfortably on 20K$.

"Where am I going with this?" I ask myself. Well, I suspect that a great many people who are in the lower quadrant for an extended period (as opposed to PhD students who make 10k$ a year stipends for a while then start making 5 times that) is that they are actually comfortable being there. Having a trailer, cable tv, a car, a cell phone, air conditioning and money for cheap beer is probably all some people want out life, if they have to trade free time to get more. Better pay might just require more than they are willing to give; more responsibility, more hours, more skills or even just more hassle.

That isn't to say that these are wrong. It is to say that they skew the numbers a bit, since presumably people want to use the numbers to see how the poor people who want to acheive more are doing. There is a difference between "Poor and starving" and "Poor but comfortable" that these numbers cover up.

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