Arnold Kling  

My Class Autobiography

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One-Sentence Class Autobio of ... Math Snobbery...

Bryan is encouraging these things.

On both sides of my family, my grandparents were immigrant Jews who tried to make a living as merchants. My mother's family settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a declining steel town. My father's family settled in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Great Depression was hard on both families. It hit the steel towns particularly hard. Meanwhile, my St. Louis grandfather went bankrupt and lost his clothing store in 1937. The Depression was the biggest event in my parents' lives. They were frugal, saving as much as they could--but not much in risky assets. We even lived in an apartment, not a house. But I did not grow up having to worry about money--my father's salary as a college professor seemed more than adequate for us.

The Depression also turned my mother and my father's older sister into Communists. My mother renounced her party membership in the 1940's, but my father's sister and her husband remained committed Communists until they died, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I gather that my uncle was a pretty effective union organizer, but he was kicked out of the unions when they purged their leadership of Communists. Their family lived in public housing in Chicago, since he had no source of income and she was often too ill to work.

Part of the post-1930's frugality was that we lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood until 1964, when I was 10. I can remember the night that the neighborhood kids organized a fight on Carlo Reina's carport between a kid named Mike and my best friend Daymon (his mother named him that because he was born on a Monday, and Daymon is Monday spelled backwards). In that fight Daymon had his tooth chipped. I remember crying about it the next day, and my other good friend Gary asked, "What are you crying for? It wasn't your tooth."

When I was 11, we moved to Clayton, Missouri, which was and is the richest suburb of St. Louis. Thinking that I must be uneducated (because I did not have the privilege of growing up in Clayton), the school district assigned me to the low math track and to take a double period of English. By the time I got to high school, that nonsense had been sorted out. But I took away a lifelong belief that affluent people think way too much of themselves, and they are way too condescending and patronizing to everyone else.

There is serious mental illness on both sides of my family. Those aunts, uncles, and cousins who were least affected by it are rather affluent. Those most affected by it are not.

So I tend to associate poverty with mental illness. Perhaps I am overly optimistic about the economic prospects of those in good mental health. But my family's experience leads me to think that poverty in the United States is mostly a mental health issue. Leaving aside new immigrants, I do not see American poverty as being determined by social class.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/519
The author at New Economist in a related article titled Why are some economists such snobs? writes:
    Bryan Caplan of EconLog has written his class autobiography. So has Arnold Kling, and Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling. All are worth reading (along with the comments and ensuing debate). But of the class autobiographies so far, I was most struck... [Tracked on May 31, 2006 3:46 PM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
Commenterlein writes:

So because mentally ill people tend to be poor, you conclude that "poverty in the U.S. is mostly a mental health issue"?

Anon writes:

I agree with the earlier commenter. There are all sorts of other explainations that seem more plausable. Maybe the weird things that the comparitively well to do do don't warrant a diagnosis, but when poor people do them, they get a label. For instance, being too abstract warrants a code in a psychological interview - no doubt though if you're a Ph.D things are seen differently.

MSE Form

Arnold Kling writes:

By definition, two people with the same parents start out in the same social class. So when as young people one of them exhibits mental illness and the other does not, you cannot say that the one is being labeled because of his social class.

It would be interesting to see a study that looked at about 10,000 twenty-year-olds and followed them for 20 years. Take psychological profiles and also look at family wealth. See which ends up being the better predictor of future income, particularly future poverty.

Hi, Arnold.

"By definition" is a bit strong for this claim:

By definition, two people with the same parents start out in the same social class.

That's not right, and it affects your other conclusions.

People with the same parents can be in different social classes quite easily, and certainly since the 1950s. A child's parents can change social class in the years between births of siblings merely because the parents change jobs or city of location. Not to mention partial-sibling changes by marriage, divorce, re-marriage, or if a child is adopted or given up for adoption.

Income changes that shifted and changed after WWII, and during and after the relocations and income changes in the 1980s-1990s, have made sea-changes in social and income status.

There are many ways for parents to move between lower-, middle-, and upper-class in the years of having children--which can range from ages 20-40, conservatively. Children can easily be and are born 4-10 or more years apart. If the parents start young or disrupt their childbearing years to finish high school, go to college--or even grad school!--or move for a different job--or country!--two siblings can easily be in very different social classes.

When the parents are working for or anticipate an improvement in social class, there is a reasonable likelihood of delaying conception of any next child till the changed status is imminent. Immigrant families or families with changing jobs often fall into this category--precisely those who plan move up in social class. How often that falls between the birth of siblings is an interesting question, but I'd warrant that both childbearing and upward social mobility are timed in the same general age group. Distinguishing between them is not likely to be easy.

JohnDewey writes:

"But I took away a lifelong belief that affluent people think way too much of themselves, and they are way too condescending and patronizing to everyone else."

You're referring to those who were affluent for their entire lives, right? First generation affluent seem to remember their roots.

Commenterlein writes:

Sweet. We have one chap who tells us that his achievments have nothing to do with his parents being wealthy and highly educated, even though more than 90% of the people who received PhDs in econ from Princeton with him also have wealthy and highly educated parents. And we have a second chap who argues that "poverty in the U.S. is mostly a mental health issue", even though most poor people aren't actually mentally ill. Are you guys trying to make libertarians look stupid?

Arnold, please try to learn the differnce between a variable "being a good predictor" and "being the most important determinant". They taught you that at MIT, you either didn't understand it or you forgot.

Arnold Kling writes:

Lauren,

You are right that two children born to the same parents can grow up in different economic circumstances, because of changes in marital status and economic mobility. But I'm not sure what to make of that point.

Suppose someone says that "my class autobiography is that I was born middle-class, but then my parents got divorced and my dad lost his job, so I became poor, and then my mom re-married a successful entrepreneur, so I became rich. All this happened before I was 10 years old."

At that point, what does the term "social class" convey? It doesn't seem to me to convey anything like what Marx or Weber meant by it.

Hi, Arnold.

But I'm not sure what to make of that point.

I think what to make of it is that the whole term "social class" doesn't mean what it meant to Marx. Marx wrote in 1867, almost 150 years ago. The world has changed many times over, yet the term "class" somehow conveys some kind of rigidity, same as he worried. What to make of it is this: what may have looked like immobile or slow movement of class structures in Germany 150 years ago has not turned out to be that rigid, and has not been replicated elsewhere except when enforced by governments like the Soviet Union. Class is fluid and changeable.

Social class changes in a growing world of easier transportation, international emigration, and legal freedoms since the mid-1800s have made the whole concept of rigid social classes problematic.

This is not to say that there are no lasting problems for families and children to get beyond generation-long social norms imposed by their particular circumstances. The barriers are immense for individuals and groups. All the same, class change happens a lot more than Marx envisioned, and it's most often effected by courageous individuals. Parents and prospective parents are motivated candidates.

Gordon Mohr writes:

I'm really enjoying these short "class" autobios. Thanks for yours.

Even agreeing that poverty is significantly a mental health issue, a lot of the mental health problems that cause poverty are themselves aggravated by poverty, so it's hard to draw a neat distinction.

Theories:

Financial stress can beget depression and lethargy. A poor diet can hurt concentration, attention span, and memory. The short-range planning forced by temporary indigence can become habitual, to the detriment of long-term well-being. 'Self-medication' for stress and depression can become destructive addiction. Status setbacks beget phobias which then deter exactly the behaviors required to escape poverty.

A person with a store of wealth, and social connections among the wealthy and wise (in their family, most likely), can shake off a short bout of either mental illness or poverty... or live well even with mild mental illness or several bad habits/compulsions.

The same mental and financial stresses could trap a person starting with less wealth and fewer helpful connections for much longer -- perhaps a lifetime, if a reinforcing cycle of impoverishment to damaged thinking gets established.

N. writes:

I find these class bios fascinating and strangely heartfelt, especially because I'm sure each author posts it knowing that he'll be excoriated for it one way or another.

With this in mind, and no malice in my heart, I should also like to say that I think that there is a great deal more to the economics of poverty -- and the economics of escaping poverty -- than what Caplan and Kling seem to conceive. Rather than enumerating topics and so forth here, I'll make a book suggestion:

Bridges out of Poverty is a book written for social workers to help them work effectively with their poor clientele. It is also unintentionally an economics book, in that it deals with how incentives function differently in lower class communities than in the middle and upper classes. There is also a lot on 'the hidden rules of class' which is signalling theory to a T. It's a short book, and not terribly dense material. Even an overworked professor could probably squeeze it in to his schedule somewhere.

I think that to really understand poverty in a way that is both meaningful and academic, it is necessary to really grok the anthropology of a poor community. The economics of that level are very deceptive because sussing out the functions of poverty is difficult, in light of the middle- and upper-class idea that poverty is itself entirely a dysfunction. This is not the case, however -- the bulk of the poor are not mentally ill -- the rules of their lives are so radically different from those of the affluent, it just looks that way from the outside in.

I may not be expressing myself particularly well here, but hopefully I make a compelling enough case that our co-bloggers here will check out the recommendation.

Dog of Justice writes:

Given what is currently known about Ashkenazi Jewish population genetics, I would guess that Arnold's mental illness hypothesis explains a significant fraction of instances of Jewish poverty, but is less useful for understanding poverty in general.

Ramon writes:
I think that to really understand poverty in a way that is both meaningful and academic, it is necessary to really grok the anthropology of a poor community. The economics of that level are very deceptive because sussing out the functions of poverty is difficult, in light of the middle- and upper-class idea that poverty is itself entirely a dysfunction. This is not the case, however -- the bulk of the poor are not mentally ill -- the rules of their lives are so radically different from those of the affluent, it just looks that way from the outside in.

Growing up in rural Mexico during the 80's, I used to think about myself and my family as middle class. Even people who were in a worse position saw themselves as middle class. In retrospect, we were rather poor with then and today's standards: no refrigerator, no electricity, no Tv, no running water, of course no car. Food consisted in 90% of beans, corn tortillas and bread. Meals that included chicked or chese tasted glorious and Ice cream was limited to once or twice a month. Of course, everyone worked in agriculture or handling animals since age 9-10.

From the outside, the poor look all the same they just don't have money for nice houses and cars. However, at least in developing countries, they live in a universe in which different levels of "poor" are taken seriously. The educated poor and those who beg or steal money may not differ greatly in income but otherwise differences are seen as huge. Some poor people hire other poor people as nannys or cleaning ladies. Street vendors look down on construction workers or cleanning personel. Guys who have 50,000 dollars in assets are called rich.

Bob Knaus writes:

My class bio would start out "There is no street address on my birth certificate, because we lived in a trailer in the woods that wasn't legal..."

I think Arnold's point should be "Mental illness is a major determinant of poverty in families who are otherwise quite succesful." Perhaps a valid theory would be that the same genetic/cultural matrix which produces highly successful people is also more fragile and likely to produce mental illness.

From the perspective of their families, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman might have all fallen into this category :-)

Robert Book writes:

I hate to make what may seem like an obvious point, but the relationship between poverty and mental illness is not adequately specified by the observation that "most people with mental illness end up being poor."

If only a small proportion of the population has mental illness, it is entirely possible for mental illness to cause poverty, but that doesn't imply that "poverty in the United States is mostly a mental health issue." Suppose that 3% of Americans have serious mental illness, and 15% of Americans are classifies as poor. Then even if all people with mental illness are poor, 80% of the poor do not have mental illness, so poverty would not be "mostly a mental health issue."

And of course, not all mentally ill people are poor. Doubtless some (small) fraction of them are children of rich people with trust funds or something similar. (Robert Lowell was rich, and spent a lot of time in mental hospitals, some of which had predominantly rich patients.)

J Klein writes:

Reading ArnoldĀ“s note I was overpowered by a rare feeling of respect. It is laconic, honest, courageous.

I am not in his league, but once I too observed to my father that poor people in general were poor because they were "abnormal" and demented. He told me to be less judgmental, since our own family was the most demented of all, his mother in Hungary year 1944 under Nazi occupation, worrying about the bread consumed by the employees and all refusing to accept offers for leaving Hungary.

J Klein writes:

PS: We had a small "sweatshop" (my parents did the sweating) selling to the popular class. We specialized in fluorescent colors and easy payment terms. Poor people makes bad economic decisions. And they have an amazing taste in clothes and bijouterie.

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