Where would you find information to support or reject the [relative productivity of poor vs rich]?

(Seeking factual information and hoping like hell that this does not become a debate.) Came across this Norman Mailer assertion, and I’m wondering if there’s any way I could find relevant information that could come close to backing it up, or undercutting it. While I realize that his terminology is quite vague, what data sources exist that could be helpful in determining the validity of the claim?

“To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is. Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.”

I think it’s going to depend on exactly what it is you want to determine about it. You could go a few different ways with it. I suppose, just to get the ball rolling, maybe start out by looking at welfare data. How much, on average, each recipient receives.
I’m not sure about what he’s referring to when it comes to abuse of goverment favors for the economically privileged or rich members of society.

There’s a distinct amount of money in the welfare system and a distinct amount of people receiving it. You can probably define it several ways, but it’s actual numbers.

“Rich members of society”, “economically privileged”, idleness, “government favors” etc are considerably more vague and defining them is almost inherently up for debate.

It’s an a priori value judgment, and any choice of evidence to support or oppose it is subject to the same a priori judgments (AKA prejudices, depending on your point of view).

“Blaming the poor for subsisting on welfare” - what might be an alternative - what jobs at what pay rates are available locally, what are the educational skills necessary and what opportunities did the people concerned have to acquire them, what support networks and services might be necessary (e.g., childcare), what other obstacles are preventing people from engaging in the work economy - or is their “welfare” simply subsidising poor pay and conditions; and what would it cost to put it right?

“judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is” - how does one measure whether someone’s contribution to society is “worth” a particular salary or level of accumulated capital?

Interesting that it’s easier to think of the former in concrete detail than the latter.

“abuse of government favours by the economically privileged” - tax avoidance is the obvious one, but also legal tax breaks for things some might consider not particularly worth the tax break, and there might be things like government funding for pet projects, dodgy contract awards, that sort of thing.

“Blame” is going to make it a debate, but people who live on welfare produce less than those who work, or invest, pretty much by definition. A society cannot survive if everyone subsists on welfare - someone has to work or invest to produce enough to support those who consume more than they produce.

The second sentence - it is going to depend on what they mean by “idleness” and “abuse of government favors”. If “idleness” means not working, then again, by definition people on welfare are idle and the economically privileged who work are not. If it means “living off investments”, then those who live off investments are living off past work and/or successfully taking risk. People on welfare could be considered living off past work if they paid enough in taxes before they went onto welfare to pay for whatever they get on welfare.

“Abuse of government favors” is more vague. Rich people get more tax breaks by definition, because people on welfare don’t pay taxes. If Mailer means getting subsidies from the government that you don’t deserve, that might be a little more definable, providing the distinction between a subsidy and a tax break is kept in mind. Taking less from a rich guy is not a subsidy in the same sense that giving money to a poor person who pays nothing in taxes.

The proposition is phrased so as to be making value judgments, and those are inherently debatable. The question “who produces more, someone who works and/or invests successfully vs. someone who does neither” is pretty straightforward. “Who is a better person” is not.


It should be pretty easy to disprove. Hereis a site that describes hours worked by income group. Hereis a site that shows the progressivity of taxes and transfers by income level.

I’m not sure that Mailer even has a hypothesis. It’s more of an opinion or a POV.

I am not an economist, but even I understand the concept of value. Given two identically idle individuals, the one who has significant capital has something of value that others will pay for the use of. That’s the whole principle of capitalism. I don’t think that the wealthy person who uses wealth to create more wealth is deserving of significant praise when compared to the individual on welfare, but the wealthy person IS creating wealth, regardless of how idle he or she is. In most cases, this translates into some additional taxes, payments for goods and services, and so forth and benefits for the general economy.

I know this is ultra-simplistic, but it seems reasonable to me.

Being on welfare and working are not binary opposites. A large percentage of those receiving food stamps are working full time. See, for example, many stories about Walmart employees.

Is the single mother raising kids idle? Is the rentier collecting rents or clipping coupons productive? The OP’s quote, which I assume came from this morning’s Word of the Day, is meaningless until you answer those questions. Do some welfare recipients do volunteer work? In Quebec for welfare recipients to do volunteer work, BTW.

Mr. Mailer said “subsisting on welfare”, so maybe it’s his mistake.

Maybe the examination should compare those who work/invest and pay taxes, vs. those who work/invest and receive food stamps or other subsidies.

If ‘total amount of money you get from the government’ minus ‘total amount of money you give to the government’ is a negative number, ISTM that this is one way to measure if you are productive or not.


The statement is not sufficiently objective as to be provable or disprovable. It is not a hypothesis, it is a position. Only interpretations of it could be provable, and you can provide some interpretations that could be proved and others that could be disproved.

OP, do some searches on tax expenditures:

Poor people pay sales taxes on stuff they buy, gas taxes for their vehicles, utility taxes & fees on their electricity, telephone calls, garbage collection, etc.

In fact, poor people pay a much larger share of their income in taxes than rich people do, from the studies I’ve seen. Because the poor person spends most of their money on basic necessities, which are taxed, while the rich ‘invest’ most of their money (in things that are largely untaxed, or taxed at lower rates).

Again, the quote is people “subsisting on welfare”. Where would somebody “subsisting on welfare” get the money to pay sales tax? The answer is that they get the money from somebody else’s productivity, not their own. It’s not a question of percentage of income; it’s a question of percentage of income derived from being productive.


PS - Food stamps were mentioned above, and you made reference to basic necessities. Food bought with food stamps is not subject to sales tax, by federal law. So those subsisting on welfare do not pay taxes on that portion of their basic necessities.

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This is not true. Even when you include payroll taxes and sales taxes the rich pay a much higher percentage of their income in tax then poor people. Those making over a million per year pay around 33% and those making under 10,000 pay around 10%. Those who make 10K-20K pay the smallest percentage at .4%.

I don’t think that chart takes sales tax into consideration.

Someone living off inherited investments is not living off of their past work. Their money might be productive (or it might not) while they are not personally productive.
You can make a better argument for productivity for people actively working.

Even there, it depends on what you mean by productive. A CEO can certainly create far more wealth in a day than a poor person can in a lifetime. But he can also lose more money for stockholders than the poor person can. Do you consider the Enron execs productive or unproductive?

BTW Mailer died a long time ago. What he said about welfare isn’t all that relevant today.

…said the youngster. (Mailer died in 2007)

I think the “or invest” part of this is pretty debatable, and is the core of Mailer’s question.

A CEO is employed. He’s productive. Similarly, a Walmart stocker (who might both work and be on welfare). It might be hard to figure out exactly how productive each is, but they’re (probably) both net positive.

An owner of capital isn’t obviously productive. Yes, said owner might be carefully making decisions about investments, and thus being productive. But he also might just be a passive rentier.

A simple example, using myself. I’m employed. I like to think I’m a productive member of society. To the extent that I’ve saved my wages and made investments, I would reasonably argue that at least some of the gain from those investments can count as part of my productivity, since I earned the seed capital and chose to invest it instead of whatever.

But there’s a decent chance that I’ll inherit a rental property some day. On that day, do I become more productive than I was the day before I inherited it? I don’t think I do. And, given the opportunity cost of going to work, I might well make the choice to become less productive. After all, I don’t need to work as hard to enjoy the same standard of living I used to.

That’s an easy example of how “the rich” might end up being less productive than “the poor”. Sure, someone worked really hard to create those assets at one point, but how many of those enjoying the splendor aren’t responsible for creating it?

“Hours Worked” is a completely irrelevant statistic.

People are, in general, paid in fairly close proximity to the value other people place on the work you do. When it comes to manual labor, hours worked may be a reasonable proxy for value provided. But that is not true for all activities. And it does not consider the value of capital.