The travel writer Paul Theroux has a new book out about his travels in the American South, and to promote it he wrote a column in the New York Times on poverty in the region and his proposed response. It suggests his powers of observation have waned since his 1970s critical heyday— and that he has some seriously misguided ideas about how to fight poverty. Here's Theroux:
China has been enriched by American-supplied jobs, making most of the destined-for-the-dump merchandise you find on store shelves all over America... it has coincided with a large number of Americans’ being put out of work and plunged into poverty.
I found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered. It’s globalization, people say... To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country. It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. Perhaps some chief executives won’t end up multibillionaires as a result, but neither will they have to provide charity to lift Americans out of poverty.
Let’s start with what is right and heartbreaking about the column. Poverty in the Deep South is widespread and deep. According to the Census Bureau, 17,054 households in Mississippi are still using wood as their primary heating fuel; 6,486 still lack complete plumbing facilities and 9,402 complete kitchen facilities. The average per capita income in the state is only $20,618, 27 percent below the national average, and 23 percent live below the poverty line. For every 1,000 Mississippi babies born in 2011, 9.4 died before their first birthday — that’s more than 50 percent above the average for the US. The poverty, and health conditions in the poorest parts of the state, will be even worse than these averages.
It is shocking that a country home to so much wealth is also home to such deprivation. It reflects a growing inequality that has seen US GDP per capita more than double over 50 years while the bottom 15 percent of incomes has stagnated. I’d also agree that some of the decline in manufacturing and related employment in the United States — as many as 2 million jobs, or more than 1 percent of the US labor force — may be due to the impact of Chinese imports.
African poverty is far, far worse than American poverty
So what is wrong with the column? First off, the comparisons with Africa. Apparently there are many such comparisons in the book Theroux has just released. You would have thought the author, a seasoned travel writer, would be well able to judge if those comparisons were fair. But his judgment about Africa has been off before. And his talents of observation appear to have deserted him again when he suggests Delta towns are similar to upcountry Kenya or Zimbabwe.
The numbers for Mississippi’s housing are shocking — but they suggest that 99 percent don’t use wood and dung for fuel and that more than 99 percent do have complete kitchen and plumbing facilities. Compare Kenya. The vast majority of Kenyan households use traditional cooking fuels including charcoal, wood, and dung. Fifteen percent of Kenyans have no sanitation facilities at all and simply defecate in the open. Less than one-third of the country has access to improved sanitation facilities for their household — many of which are pit latrines. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day — about one-tenth of the US poverty line — is 46 percent, and infant mortality is 38 per 1,000, almost four times the rate in Mississippi. The level of poverty and inequality in the United States is shocking, but it is simply false to equate it with the levels of deprivation in the world’s poorest countries.
Why the American South has fallen behind
The second problem with the column is the explanation for poverty in the South. Theroux wants to say that globalization is to blame for Southern poverty, but the phenomenon is far older and deeper than that. Washington Post book reviewer Jack Hitt notes Theroux’s "big discovery is that the poor areas of the Deep South are heartbreakingly poor — which is true, and was true when Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Appalachian tour, Walker Evans’s photographs, the National Emergency Council’s 1938 ‘Report on Economic Conditions in the South’ and even Harriet Beecher Stowe’s memoir ‘Palmetto-Leaves’ brought attention, in their own ways, to the arduous lives of Dixie rustics." The decline of manufacturing jobs has played a recent role in worsening poverty in parts of the South, but blaming Fruit of the Loom executives for moving their manufacturing to other markets lets far too many people, and far too many parts of government, off the hook.
Among the list of factors that keep poor people poor in this country are a tax system that is barely progressive, a still-broken (if less so) health-care system, an education system that makes it tough for kids from poor backgrounds to get ahead, a safety net that offers next to nothing for displaced workers aside from disability payments, regional regulations that stop poor people moving to where the jobs are, and a criminal justice system that locks up a far greater fraction of the population than the rich country average. That is to say nothing of still-virulent institutional racism, which entrenches both black and Latino poverty.
And competition from imports from poor countries does not necessarily lead to poverty — indeed, overall it has been an "absolutely, completely proven positive-sum" as New York Magazine's Annie Lowrey notes in her superb critique of this very same Theroux column. Other rich countries have managed the decline of manufacturing jobs (a global phenomenon) and preserved considerably more equal outcomes in terms of income and health than have ever existed in the United States. Globalization is a force to be managed, not an evil to be resisted.
Theroux’s solution: Make the Chinese poorer
Theroux’s deep misunderstanding of the drivers and global nature of poverty leads to some truly toxic policy recommendations that pit poor people in the United States against even poorer people elsewhere. Factory workers in China are paid less than US workers, it is true. But they are paid far more than they could earn in the informal employment or subsistence farming that is the lot of billions of people across the developing world. The fact that the country has effectively wiped out $1.25-a-day poverty is closely linked to its export miracle. If rich countries start retreating from global trade, the developing world will see poverty spike. And the hope for African countries to reach Chinese levels of income — let alone those of Mississippi — will drift further away.
Perhaps Theroux doesn’t care about that as much as he does about poverty in the Southern US. But his strategy is counterproductive even if you completely ignore its impact on global prosperity. When US companies move manufacturing to other parts of the world, they do so in order to make larger profits, to be sure, but they also do it to remain competitive. That’s why the impact of globalization has been lower prices — something that benefits poor and rich Americans alike. The firms wouldn’t be able to compete if they moved production back home unless America put up huge tariffs on imported manufactured products. And if we raised tariffs in an effort to force US companies to reshore, that would raise prices at home. A few lucky people might get jobs out of it. Everyone else would pay the price. It is a very expensive form of jobs program.
When President Obama slapped tariffs on Chinese tires a few years ago, for example, he may have temporarily preserved 1,200 jobs in the US tire industry, but because everyone in the US started paying more for tires they bought less other stuff — and economist Gary Hufbauer estimates that may have cost as many as 3,731 jobs in the rest of the economy. And tariffs would also create remarkably few jobs. Manufacturing employment is stagnating or dropping everywhere — even in China —not just in the US. That suggests that biggest factor behind the American manufacturing’s decline is technological change, not globalization.
Theroux does a service in pointing up the poverty of the Deep South. But he does a disservice to those he is trying to help — along with those he relied upon as subjects in his earlier writings about the developing world —by suggesting poor people worldwide are alike in their deprivations, or that the answer is for them to fight each other for jobs.
Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CGD.
Correction: This article originally stated that Paul Theroux is British; he's American.