Paul Krugman on the Truly Devastating Lesson of Baltimore

Without a doubt, the Freddie Gray atrocity and subsequent unrest in Baltimore is a reminder that America is very far from being the post-racial society that some commentators would like to pretend it is. But in Monday's column, Paul Krugman sees another important lesson to be drawn from recent events, "about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality." 

Take, for example, issues of health and mortality. Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations. But what’s really striking on a national basis is the way class disparities in death rates have been soaring even among whites.

Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in post-Communist Russia.

And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in self-destructive behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of millions behind.

Krugman is as disgusted as the rest of the sentient public with commentators who continue to blame poor Americans for their plight and their supposed lack of values, saying, "at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs."

Ever the economist, Krugman points out the simple fact that declining wages and work instability have been followed by declines in marriage and increased out-of-wedlock births. The poor cannot simply act like the middle class.

Other commentators perpetuate the laughable myth that the country is spending lots of money on fighting poverty. "In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries," Krugman writes. "That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line."

The continual focus on the alleged poor values of poor people is, as Krugman says, and act of "malign neglect. . .  The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages."

America has chosen to make places like Baltimore unjust. It can choose otherwise.

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