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How Rent Makes Poverty

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com How Rent Makes Poverty Progress.org This
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2006
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist

      How Rent Makes Poverty

      This article is reprinted here with the permission of the Baltimore
      (Copyright 2006 by The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.
      Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is
      expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.)

      This story was first published on November 17, 2006.
      by Julian Edney

      A recent Los Angeles Times article shows an increase in child
      poverty to be connected with housing costs which are spiraling out
      of reach. Real wages are down again, while living costs are spiking:
      a second report in the same newspaper shows the asking rent for
      Southern California residential units now averaging $1,413 per
      month, far above a working class family's means. To keep a roof over
      their heads, many are moving to unsafe neighborhoods like Central
      and South Los Angeles, working multiple jobs to pay rent, and living
      in seriously overcrowded units, causing the children to suffer.
      South Los Angeles statistics resemble those of some third world
      countries: poverty rates are high (over 30% in some zip codes), the
      children's schools are abysmal, child disease rates are high, birth
      weights are small, and violent crime rates are high. Fear, poor
      nutrition and bad education all ripple forward into the children's
      adulthood, perpetuating the poverty.
      That type of article is not uncommon for the Times but it omits the
      point that nothing will be done. First, these statistics are part of
      a national problem and you can always point to more expensive rents
      in New York, and worse health sinks in Boston and New York. Second,
      the liberal line is that nobody really understands the causes of
      poverty, which are like the branches of a tree, multiple and
      entangled. National experiments like the War on Poverty failed, so
      nothing official is planned, and liberals have become quiet.

      So we have fallen back on the market solution. This is the
      conservatives' way. Conservatives say they understand: they blame
      poverty on sloth, bad behavior, and having too many children. They
      don't approve of government handouts because such a policy would be
      a reward for indolence. Cheer up, say conservatives. While there is
      inconvenience to some, the system grows wealth; it continues to
      serve the greatest good for the greatest number. Because the economy
      is so huge and diffuse, you cannot pin the actions of one person
      onto the pain of another. In fact, the dynamics are mystical (the
      invisible hand). Using a dollar quantity for the poverty line
      reframes suffering and removes the moral sting. According to
      conservatives, the solution is to leave things alone—laissez-faire.

      My thesis is that since the damaging consequences of poverty are
      profound and lasting, they can never be justified by saying that the
      economy is making some people wealthy. If it can be shown that the
      added wealth of some directly causes the suffering of others, then
      the problem becomes a moral one again. Further, if there were a
      single cause which we could adjust, then we could not hide behind
      the thicket of multiple-causation theories. We would be accountable
      for our inaction.

      The cause is rent.

      Economists have thrown an impenetrable veil over the concept of rent
      (economists' definitions make many things incomprehensible) so I
      will clarify, briefly. Adam Smith said, rent is the quantity of
      money left over after a producer's (farmer, factory owner's) cost of
      production, and the landlord can take it. In other words, if a
      farmer rents a field and grows and sells his crop, then after
      subtracting his costs, the money left over can be charged by the
      landlord. That seems like a lot, but the landlord has the power to
      stop the whole operation. Amazingly, that definition has stood since
      Smith's day. It was modified by Ricardo, who added that the quality
      of the location also affected the rent, and Malthus, who added that
      rents also respond to supply and demand. Malthus also wrote that
      rent may be inflated by land monopolies and by price fixing. Of
      course you can rent a car or a washing machine or an apartment, and
      in all cases the owner's power is that he can stop your operation
      unless he gets what he wants. Smith's definition is dispassionate;
      morally it is a cold vacuity. His definition also meant that the
      rent is calculated after the production season, and that it will go
      down if the producer has a bad season. All these variations are
      politically conservative.

      The only strong disagreement came later from Henry George, an
      American, who in 1897 pointed out certain realities: rent doesn't go
      down and up: it is correlated with land values, which go up and up.
      Also, rents are charged in advance, so actually the tenant survives
      on what is left after the landlord is paid. Next, monopolies (or
      partial monopolies) are common—if a landlord owns a small town, all
      his tenants will have to pay what he wants. Their only alternatives
      are emigration or death, and that is not supply and demand, it is
      greed. Also, rents, while big money on a national scale, do not grow
      the nation's wealth. This is because the money is only moved around,
      taken from the have-nots and given to the haves (what moderns would
      call a zero-sum exchange). That is how fortunes are made at the
      expense of the poor.

      Henry George got into things. Because of the simple points that rent
      has to be paid in advance and that rents always rise while wages do
      not, he said labor takes home less and less. He makes his general
      principle that "as land increases in value, poverty deepens."
      Classically, Adam Smith claimed that all the efforts of people
      seeking self-interest lift a society up, acting as a giant wedge
      driven under the society. Henry George said that rents actually tend
      to force the poor further down; the wedge is driven through the
      society. Rent is the culprit, he said, it is the thing that prevents
      a free market society benefiting everyone. It is eviscerating. It
      accounted for the widening inequality of his day, and he had
      powerful descriptions of American cities in which widespread
      destitution could be found in the midst of the greatest abundance.
      Since the law supports the haves, rent is legal robbery "..not like
      the robbery of a horse or a sum of money, that ceases with the act.
      It is a fresh and continuous robbery, that goes on every day and
      every hour... a toll levied constantly and continuously...it
      debases, and embrutes, and embitters."

      Keep in mind, Henry George said, land is inert. So are landlords:
      you do not have to exert any effort to sit and collect rents, so no
      new work is put into the economy. It contributes nothing. The
      opposite: as rents rise, it spurs a competitive rush to own land in
      speculation, rather than to be productive.

      Only Karl Marx took a rhetorical step further than George, arguing
      that rent is a kind of exploitation, deliberately raised high by
      profit-maximizing capitalists to keep labor impoverished and
      desperate and willing to work at subsistence wages.

      Another recent Los Angeles Times article describes the slow panic
      now spreading through the working poor in old neighborhoods like
      Echo Park and parts of Hollywood as building after building is
      remodeled and street after street is gentrified. Rents are bracketed
      up, tenants are forced out, and they can only find more expensive
      places to live. Los Angeles rents have jumped 82% in the last 10
      years to an average of $1,750.

      Nationally, rents are so far above wages that of the 3,141 counties
      in the United States, in only four of them can a person making
      minimum wage afford a one-bedroom apartment.

      Henry George lived in the Gilded Age, the age of the robber baron
      when laissez-faire was melded with Social Darwinism. It was also the
      time of the Populist uprising against landholders' exploitation of
      sharecroppers. His descriptions of rich and poor juxtaposed fit
      modern America so well, we wonder why his theory is out of fashion.
      America has become more unequal than ever. Perhaps George was
      forgotten because he was not a revolutionary and the publication of
      his book Progress and Poverty did not start riots. And after the
      Populist movement faded, the nation didn't do anything, again,
      defaulting to the market solution.

      Today laissez-faire is popular again, with its refusal to recognize
      any moral wrong. A new wave of Social Darwinism holds that
      inequality and injustice are in the nature of things. Conservative
      economists are talking again about the invisible hand. There is the
      same deafness to social issues. Demands for justice are dismissed as
      too emotional. Any remedies that involve government planning are
      denounced as socialist.

      Henry George's solution was to tax land values to the point that
      land ownership – especially land monopolies – would become

      It is a general point that free markets do grow wealth, but they
      also grow inequality. New health studies show that unequal
      communities, states, and nations all have higher rates of certain
      diseases and shorter life expectancies than do egalitarian
      communities. If you live in an unequal society, your environment is
      more violent, and the steepness of the inequality predicts a raft of
      social ills. (Separately, poverty is correlated with poor health.)

      So an obvious policy direction is to rebuild equality. That idea
      threatens trickle-down ideology, so there will be enormous
      resistance. But we have new economic evidence that wealth actually
      grows stronger when there is more equality.

      Renters are everywhere. 61% of Los Angeles families are renters. But
      there is a glacial quietness on the topic of rent. Among people who
      benefit from this silence are landlords who consider themselves
      sensitive to social issues. They do not want to talk about rents.

      Business is business, but for poor people, rent is always the
      biggest expenditure. Millions and millions of families are just
      getting by. There are others who have to choose between shelter and
      food. For all these people, rent is fear.

      Our national child poverty rate has been reported variously at 17%
      and at 20.3%, but in Los Angeles County it is 24.6%.

      Real, practical changes will not begin until poverty is reframed
      back from a dollar quantity to a moral problem for the nation.

      Rent should be made an open topic -- and a point of accountability.
      Julian Edney holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of
      California, Riverside and a M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University,
      New Haven. He has written noted treatises on the topic of greed.


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