California and the Supplemental Poverty Measure

I’ve often seen pieces comparing the economies of blue states and red states, with blue states generally coming out ahead. I was skeptical but interested in a piece by Kerry Jackson of the Pacific Research Institute on how California measures the worst in some important categories.

Guess which state has the highest poverty rate in the country? Not Mississippi, New Mexico, or West Virginia, but California, where nearly one out of five residents is poor. That’s according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in the cost of housing, food, utilities and clothing, and which includes noncash government assistance as a form of income.

Given robust job growth and the prosperity generated by several industries, it’s worth asking why California has fallen behind, especially when the state’s per-capita GDP increased approximately twice as much as the U.S. average over the five years ending in 2016 (12.5%, compared with 6.27%).

It’s not as though California policymakers have neglected to wage war on poverty. Sacramento and local governments have spent massive amounts in the cause. Several state and municipal benefit programs overlap with one another; in some cases, individuals with incomes 200% above the poverty line receive benefits. California state and local governments spent nearly $958 billion from 1992 through 2015 on public welfare programs, including cash-assistance payments, vendor payments and “other public welfare,” according to the Census Bureau. California, with 12% of the American population, is home today to about one in three of the nation’s welfare recipients.

The generous spending, then, has not only failed to decrease poverty; it actually seems to have made it worse.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some states — principally Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia — initiated welfare reform, as did the federal government under President Clinton and a Republican Congress. Tied together by a common thread of strong work requirements, these overhauls were a big success: Welfare rolls plummeted and millions of former aid recipients entered the labor force.

The state and local bureaucracies that implement California’s antipoverty programs, however, resisted pro-work reforms. In fact, California recipients of state aid receive a disproportionately large share of it in no-strings-attached cash disbursements. It’s as though welfare reform passed California by, leaving a dependency trap in place.

The Census Bureau has been using the Supplemental Poverty Measure since 2011, so this isn’t a weird thing cooked up recently by the Trump administration.

Since the publication of the first official U.S. poverty estimates, researchers and policymakers have continued to discuss the best approach to measure income and poverty in the United States. Beginning in 2011, the Census Bureau began publishing the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which extends the official poverty measure by taking account of many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that are not included in the official poverty measure. This is the seventh report describing the SPM, released by the U.S. Census Bureau, with support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This report presents updated estimates of the prevalence of poverty in the United States using the official measure and the SPM based on information collected in 2017 and earlier Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASEC).

Their website provides an explanation.

In 2010, an interagency technical working group asked the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to develop a new measure that would improve our understanding of the economic well-being of American families and enhance our ability to measure the effect of federal policies on those living in poverty. The technical design of the supplemental poverty measure draws on the recommendations of a 1995 National Academy of Sciences report and the extensive research on poverty measurement conducted over the past 20 years. See the history of poverty measures in the United States infographic.

President Johnson’s 1964 declaration of his “War on Poverty” generated a new interest in measuring just how many people were in poverty and how that changed over time.

On September 12, 2017, the Census Bureau will release the seventh report on the supplemental poverty measure, containing estimates for the 2016 calendar year. The report presents estimates for the official and supplemental poverty measures and discusses differences between the two measures. A comparison of the major concepts is detailed in the table below and in this infographic.

We measure poverty two ways every year. The official poverty measure is based on cash resources. The supplemental poverty measure uses cash resources and also includes noncash benefits and subtracts necessary expenses (such as taxes and medical expenses).

The official poverty measure compares an individual’s or family’s pretax cash income to a set of thresholds that vary by the size of the family and the ages of the family members. These official poverty calculations do not take into account the value of in-kind benefits, such as those provided by nutrition assistance or housing and energy programs. Nor do they take into account regional differences in living costs or expenses, such as housing.

The supplemental poverty measure takes into account family resources and expenses not included in the official measure as well as geographic variation. First, it adds the value of in-kind benefits that are available to buy basic goods to cash income. In-kind benefits include nutritional assistance, subsidized housing and home energy assistance. Then it subtracts necessary expenses for critical goods and services not included in the thresholds from resources. Necessary expenses that are subtracted include income taxes, Social Security payroll taxes, child care and other work-related expenses, child support payments to another household, and contributions toward the cost of medical care and health insurance premiums.

Thresholds used in the supplemental poverty measure are produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Division of Price and Index Number Research using Consumer Expenditure Survey data that show how much people spend on basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter and utilities) and are adjusted for geographic differences in the cost of housing. The supplemental poverty measure thresholds are not intended to assess eligibility for government assistance.


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A-list characters are no fun.


A few years ago, when writing about Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run of Hawkeye, Humphrey Lee of Ainticoolnews explains why he prefers B-list characters to the A-listers like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.

This may be one of those occasions where I’m just blowing smoke up my own ass, but I’ve always felt that a book like HAWKEYE here, where a top-tier writer is basically doing what they please with a middle-tier character, is really where franchise comics shine. It has just always felt like these types of characters get all the benefits of being in a comic book universe – being able to draw from the long history of the universe, dragging in the occasional team up, playing off events that take place in the big crossovers without having to be a direct part of them, etc. – without any of the drawbacks of being a major player in that universe. The biggest drawback of the Spider-Mans, Supermans, and so on of the comics world is that outside of an Elseworlds tale or some other out of continuity romp, you cannot go terribly crazy with the characters. Well, you can, but I believe that history has shown when you get a bit far off the beaten path with the big players and the characters wrapped up in their worlds the fans will rip your head off for it. Obviously I’m speaking in generalities here, and there’s exceptions to every rule, but it’s really not in much dispute that the Big Two have a lot more riding on a Spider-Man than they do a Daredevil and thereby have to play things a little more conservatively with the former than the latter.

Now, HAWKEYE does not exactly go to the lengths that some of the secondary character classic runs have done or are currently doing. It’s not a DAREDEVIL where Frank Miller or Brian Michael Bendis are stripping the character down to the core, and it’s not ANIMAL MAN or SWAMP THING where guys like Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder are carving a horrific swath through their own little section of the DCU. What Matt Fraction and David Aja are doing is taking a character that is a highly skilled badass with a checkered past and telling uber-stylish tales about him being a highly skilled badass with a checkered past. I particularly loved, loved, loved the first issue, which was a great take on the idea of the street level hero and what they go through to bring a little justice to the world. They get their hands dirty, they break bones and have to spend time recovering, and they tend to touch lives a little more intimately than the heroes that do their bit helping the world by throwing large parts of it at each other.

Some of the material he described could happen in an A-list book, but there is definitely greater flexibility with lesser-known series. Though it does seem to have been a while since there was a legendary run on one of those books.

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Throwback Thursday: A really dumb argument against Romney

Evil Romney

This was something I wrote during the 2012 presidential election, on a criticism of Mitt Romney that was probably forgotten minutes after the think pieces were written.

There were legitimate complaints with Romney’s numbers regarding the number of jobs he claims to have created for the companies he worked for. But it seems moronic to criticize him for potential job losses at competitors’ companies, as Paul Krugman did in a column during the election.

In any case, it makes no sense to look at changes in one company’s work force and say that this measures job creation for America as a whole.

Suppose, for example, that your chain of office-supply stores gains market share at the expense of rivals. You employ more people; your rivals employ fewer. What’s the overall effect on U.S. employment? One thing’s for sure: it’s a lot less than the number of workers your company added.

Better yet, suppose that you expand in part not by beating your competitors, but by buying them. Now their employees are your employees. Have you created jobs?

Scott Hellman and Michael Kranish made a similar point in a Vanity Fair piece, quoted by Andrew Sullivan.

Assessing claims about job creation is hard. Staples grew hugely, but the gains were offset, at least partially, by losses elsewhere: smaller, mom-and-pop stationery stores and suppliers were being squeezed, and some went out of business entirely.

It wasn’t Mitt Romney’s responsibility to take care of his opponents.

But when one company does well, the competitors do better. It’s no coincidence that many of the highest ranking rock albums came from the late 1960s, when everyone was inspired by and trying to top the other guys. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, was followed by Revolver by the Beatles, which was followed by Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which was followed by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which was followed by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Robert Stevens summed it up, writing for, er, the World Socialist Web Site.

One gets the definite sense that Wilson’s achievement on Pet Sounds literally opened the sonic sluice gates for the Beatles and everyone else who heard it. Upon listening to any Beatles album after 1966, you can hear and feel the influence of Brian Wilson. “Back in the USSR” from the Beatles’ White Albumis probably the most famous example of them seeking to emulate the Beach Boys style, but it is also indelibly there on many of their other songs and later work.

The influences were reciprocal. It was upon hearing the 1965 Beatles albumRubber Soul that Wilson felt compelled to produce a work of uniform quality that would stand comparison. He said of the album, “I really wasn’t quite ready for the unity. It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs … that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed.”

In some cases, innovators destroy their competitors. In other situations, the innovators inspire their competitors to do better work. The bad stuff isn’t the fault of the original innovator.


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Franchising Wolverine

For some time, the X-Men comics were in an odd place because the Chairman of Marvel Entertainment hated the idea of providing Fox more content to adapt for films and TV. Disney’s purchase of Fox eliminates that concern, so one effect of the merger is likely to be a renewed focus on the X-Men comics. And an opportunity for Marvel is with Wolverine, likely to get some kind of high profile relaunch thanks to his resurrection in Marvel Legacy.

Wolverine is second only to Spider-Man when it comes to Marvel’s most recognizable characters. Since the first issue of Wolverine: Origins a decade back, he has been established as the rare superhero capable of handling multiple solo monthlies, although you could argue that was also the case in the 80s when he had his own book and a regular feature in Marvel Comics Presents.

It wouldn’t surprise me if writers pitching for Wolverine often make ambitious promises about establishing a franchise separate from the X-Men (in the same way that Green Lantern is separate from the JLA) on par with the biggest solo superhero franchises (Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.) Though there may be reasons this won’t work very well.

Whereas other A-list superheroes typically started with solo adventures, Wolverine had a different route, making his debut as an antagonist of the Hulk, before joining a team book. His solo adventures came much later. And since an aspect of the character has been his role as a mysterious loner, he usually doesn’t have a consistent supporting cast, which means there often isn’t much carryover from one run on the book to the next.

Wolverine Robertson

This isn’t about the number of books he appears in, or is tied to. To the extent that the character has any direction, it’s as a member of the X-Men. And some of the major recent developments for the character occurred in that series, or in tie-ins such as House of M. His solo books are almost a satellite title to his appearances in team books, rarely affecting his appearances there. Usually it seems that his books consist of solo adventures when he’s taking a few days of from being an X-Man, whereas the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Batman and Green Lantern have their own identity outside of the JLA.

I’m thinking more in terms of the attention and respect that seem to be paid to the Superman books than anything else. What’ll it take for Wolverine comics to be so big and so independent of the X-books, that there would be a Wolverine forum at CBR, or even Alvaro’s?

This isn’t about other titles. If you were to cancel half the X-universe books, I don’t think it would make much of a difference here. The biggest problem I think is that Wolverine lacks a consistent setting, mission or supporting cast outside of the X-Men. It’s going to be hard to fix that in a way that will stick. Especially with this character.

He needs an Ed Brubaker on Captain America, or Geoff Johns on Green Lantern and Flash type run, someone who could set a status quo and direction that later writers can build on. This is easier to imagine than to implement, but it would be one of the biggest ways Marvel’s new Editor in Chief can make a splash.

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How Unpopular Could Trump Be?


There is one line of thinking that President Trump, despite his record low approval rating, has a floor in terms of how low he can go.

Part of this is in comparison to former Presidents. However, Trump is a bit unique in that he reached the White House through untraditional means. He wasn’t a former Governor, Senator or top cabinet official. Presidents before him had to win major elections multiple times, or at least serve in public office in a very prominent way for several years. Because Trump hasn’t done that, I wonder if the rules are a bit different.

Looking at Presidents since the 1960s, JFK and LBJ were re-elected Senators, while Richard Nixon had won statewide office, and served two terms as Vice President. Jimmy Carter had served a full term as Governor. Ronald Reagan served two. George HW Bush had served in multiple senior administration posts before serving two terms as Vice President. Bill Clinton had been elected Governor of Arkansas five times. George W Bush was re-elected Governor of Texas. Barack Obama might be the least experienced in the group, but he had won election as Senator, and been a national figure since his DNC keynote speech.

Instead of comparing Trump to former Presidents, who had to demonstrate an ability to excel in major political office, it’s possible he’s more like an outsider or lucky legislative backbencher who is elected Governor/ Senator. That suggests a different floor, akin to different executives. Chris Christie is leaving New Jersey with an approval rating near the single digits, and it’s not unprecedented for politicians to hit numbers like that.

There have been situations where Governors lose primaries, or basically get forced out of office. Jim Gibbons of Nevada didn’t even get thirty percent of the vote as an incumbent Republican Governor. Sarah Palin basically quit as Governor of Alaska after a disastrous year as a national figure. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned after being convicted for perjury/ obstruction of justice. If Trump has more in common with those guys, his approval rating might be able to keep going down, changing the political conversation on what’s possible.

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Metsfilter January 2 2018


These are just some links I found interesting.

Tyler Cowen’s explanation of why he writes for Bloomberg View is a source of good leads on intelligent writing on economic matters.

Open Culture has two interesting photo galleries:

Robert McCrum of the Guardian finished his list of the Top 100 best nonfiction books of all time. He explains his rationale.

An explanation of the Platinum rule, a variation of the golden rule that takes into account the possibility that people might not want to be treated the same way you do.

The editor notes for Milo Yiannopoulos’ book remain hilarious. 

From SMBC, A biblical explanation for Quantum Mechanics.

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Movies Watched in 2017 WrapUp


This is the conclusion of the analysis of films I’ve seen this year. The first five were devoted to a goal of seeing ten films from each decade: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6 was a continuation- I tried to set sub-challenges, but it didn’t work outIn October, I chose to watch 13 horror/ horror-adjacent films.

And here’s the rest.

Movie #145/ 2010s Movie #19/ Superhero Film #11: The Avengers
This blockbuster isn’t perfect. The plot is based on a lot of gobblygook, but it’s a different type of superhero film than we’ve seen before in the linking of heroes from multiple franchises, all of whom start fighting one another in the classic Marvel manner. It’s also an improved showing for Hiddleston’s Loki. With greater distance, it’s impressive how well Whedon pulled off the hat trick of taking heroes from different series, and making their interactions fun, as well as believable.

Movie #146/ New Movie #103/ 1950s Movie #3: The Trouble With Harry
Hitchcock’s comedy is a strange film about people in a small Vermont town having very unusual reactions to the death of a visitor, and to the efforts of others to cover it up. It leads to dry, absurd humor and some winning performances, especially Shirley Maclaine’s young widow.

Movie #147/ New Movie #104/ 2010s Movie #20/ Superhero Film #12: Thor- Ragnarok
Definitely the best of the Thors, and one of the reminders of just how ridiculously good this year has been to superhero films. It’s a lot of plot in a fun and satisfying way, bringing together strong performances from characters we’ve seen before in a lot of Marvel films, and introducing memorable newcomers from different sources (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett, rising star Tessa Thompson, whatever the hell you call Jeff Goldblum’s career right now).

Movie #148/ New Movie #105/ 1960s Movie #14: Black Sabbath
This is a solid horror anthology. There isn’t a weak story in the bunch. A story about a woman getting threatening phone calls has two big twists. The closing story has a decent take on ghosts seeking revenge. The middle is the best, with a family unsure if a returned patriarch (played by Boris Karloff) is the beloved grandfather or a monster ready to attack them. It’s elevated by the weaponization of love, and the nastiness that follows.

Movie #149/ New Movie #106/ 2010s Movie #21/ Superhero Film #12: Justice League
DC continues their trend of films that are worse than anything we’ve seen in the MCU. The character interactions often work, so it is fun to see the team hang out together, but that’s hampered by rushed special effects, and lame A-plots. The much critiqued Steppenwolf isn’t as bad as the senseless fight with Superman.


New Movie #150/ 1960s Movie #14: The Graduate
What makes this movie work so well is that it is the best in a very particular category (the coming of age film about someone who has met many traditional markers of adulthood.) It’s obviously elevated by the star turn from Dustin Hoffman, and Anne Bancroft as the best seducer ever, but it also excels really well in the little moments, and in the ways it reveals the potential mistakes of the characters, allowing it to hold up to later viewings, when you’re at a different stage in your life than when you first encountered it.

Movie #151/ New Movie #107/ 2010s Movie #22: Darkest Hour
It’s a slightly unconventional biopic focusing on the great man during a relatively brief but important time, as he has just become Prime Minister, and needs to hold firm against Germany. Gary Oldman’s performance can be described as a transformation, and he deserves the inevitable Oscar, but the script is witty, and the film has decent supporting performances, notably Kristi Scott Thomas’s Lady Churchill- who has made her peace with the sacrifices she must make, and Ben Mendelsohm’s King George, who quietly gets to know what to make of the strange Churchill.

Movie #152/ New Movie #108/ 1930s Movie #14: Lost Horizon
This Capra film about survivors who find themselves in a new land is sometimes preachy and indulgent, and even a little boring. The sets are nice, and there are moments when it really excels.

Movie #153/ New Movie #109/ 2010s Movie #23/ Science Fiction Film #12: Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi
The best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a mix of fantastic moments, and new characters, while continuing ably the new trilogy, and excelling with the old favorites. I loved it.

Movie #154/ New Movie #110/ 2010s Movie #24/ Politics Film #12: Confirmation
This HBO film about Anita Hill’s efforts to tell her truth about Clarence Thomas isn’t bad, but a bit by the numbers, quite similar to their Recount film. It hits a lot of the major beats, showing the different sides of the fight, and the decisions that end up having outsized consequences, although it ends up lacking in depth.


Movie #155/ New Movie #111/ 2010s Movie #24: Lady Bird
An excellent coming of age film, that seems to function on different levels: either one of the best made movies about an artistic girl’s senior year of high school, or the perspective of the parents trying to make ends meet.

Movie #156/ 1940s Movie #24: It’s a Wonderful Life
Saw it on the big-screen as a part of a Christmas revival. It remains one of my favorite movies ever, and I can defend it as the best independent movie of all time.

Movie #157/ New Movie #112/ 2010s Movie #25: Three Billboards in Billings, Missouri
The powerhouse performance by Frances McDormand as a grieving mother anchors the film that looks at the people affected by her response to inaction. It goes in some unexpected places, as writer/ director Martin McDonaugh (also an exceptional playwright) considers questions of meaning and order while consistently revealing new wrinkles to everything.

Movie #158/ 1940s Movie #24: A Matter of Life and Death
This was a fun fantasy story that works on several levels. The lead’s experiences could be taken literally, as a hallucination he suffers as a result of surviving a plane crash. But it also comes to a trial that’s ultimately a defense of England.

Movie #159/ New Movie #113/ 2010s Movie #26: The Disaster Artist
James Franco’s take on Tommy Wiseau is a decent transformation, although the comparisons at the end with the original The Room don’t do the film any favors, as it reveals just how much more distinctive the real Wiseau is. It ends up being a decent take on the struggles of a young actor, although that’s been handled better.

Movie #160/ New Movie #114/ 2010s Movie #27: The Post
I don’t think anyone but Spielberg could have done this film so well, manipulative but often powerful. The cast is excellent, and Streep gets one of her best performances- in a film that captures her transformation as she pushes the Washington Post into being a more serious institution.


Movie #161/ New Movie #115/ 1970s Movie #8/ Estonian Movie #2: The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel
Since the version of the film I found on youtube is in Estonian, and lacks subtitles, it’s not something most viewers are going to be able to appreciate. It’s an atmospheric detective story that takes a weird turn. I’m going to watch this one again, before grading it.

Movie #162/ New Movie #116/ 2010s Movie #28: All the Money in the World
Imperfect but solid procedural about the opposing forces when a rich man’s grandson is kidnapped. Highlights the flaws and the beauties of the kid’s life, with excellent performances by Michelle Williams as the patrician but humbled mother, and Christopher Plummer, essentially playing a Scrooge who never got a visit from the three spirits.

Movie #163/ New Movie #117/ 2010s Movie #29: Phantom Thread
This has to be a weird sell in terms of determining the audience for a Paul Thomas Anderson/ Daniel Day Lewis collaboration about a troubled dressmaker’s relationship with a waitress. The score and costumes are great.

Year in Review: Obviously, this is limited to what I’ve seen this year. I’m splitting each decade into two categories: best “new” movie (film I hadn’t seen before) and best overall movie (often including notable classics I have seen before.)

Best movie of the silent era: Nosferatu

Best new movie of the silent era: The Phantom Carriage

Best movie of the 1930s: The Grand Illusion

grande illusion

Best new movie of the 1930s: L’Atalante

Best movie of the 1940s: It’s a Wonderful Life

Best new movie of the 1940s: The Red Shoes

Best movie of the 1950s: On the Waterfront

Best new movie of the 1950s: Ashes and Diamonds

Best movie of the 1960s: Lawrence of Arabia

Best new movie of the 1960s: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Best movie of the 1970s: Jaws

Best new movie of the 1970s: Cries and Whispers


Best movie of the 1980s: The Princess Bride

Best new movie of the 1980s: Stand By Me

Best movie of the 1990s: Trainspotting

Best new movie of the 1990s: Metropolitan

Best movie of the 2000s: The Dark Knight

Best new movie of the 2000s: Amelie

Best movie of the 2010s: Dunkirk

Best new movie of the 2010s: Dunkirk

Worst Movie: Transformers (1980s animated film)

Best surprise: These are the Damned. I did not expect a science fiction film I hadn’t heard about to be this good.

Weirdest Surprise: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Wow, was this pervy.

Best movie I hadn’t seen before: Dunkirk, I think.

Best movie I had seen before: It’s a Wonderful Life


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