Though I’m sure they’d do a fine job, I have not asked James Baker and Lee Hamilton to select the winners of the annual Sidney Awards. Instead, I’ve selected the honorees — who have written the best magazine essays of the year — myself.
The first goes to Nicholas Eberstadt, who continues to show how frequently-cited statistics can disguise reality. In “The Mismeasure of Poverty” in Policy Review, Eberstadt notes that the percentage of Americans living under the poverty rate has been stagnant for 30 years, suggesting that antipoverty efforts have failed, and that life has not improved for the nation’s poor.The problem, Eberstadt continues, is that there are anomalies in the official statistics. Why does the poverty rate tend to go up as unemployment falls? Why hasn’t it budged while the amounts of money the government spends on the poor have more than doubled in constant dollars?
Eberstadt goes back and looks at how the poverty rate is calculated, and finds that it is based on idiosyncratic assumptions about how the economy and family budgets worked in 1965. He then observes two realities that are masked by our current statistics, one heartening, one disheartening. The first is that people living under the poverty line are materially much better off than they were three decades ago. They live in much bigger homes. Three-quarters own at least one motor vehicle. They spend roughly twice as much as they report as income, and not because they are going into debt. (Net worths have not declined.) In general, poor people today live at about the same standard of living as middle-class people did in the 1960s.
On the other hand, they live with great insecurity. In fact, relatively few people live permanently in poverty. But nearly a third of the U.S. population dips into poverty from time to time. Building on the work of Jacob Hacker, Eberstadt paints a picture of great volatility at the bottom end of the income scale — a different image from the one portrayed by the immobile statistics, with radically different policy implications.
The second Sidney goes to Matthew Crawford, who left his job at a think tank and went to work repairing motorcycles. In “Shop Class as Soulcraft” in The New Atlantis, he notices that “There was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank.”
His essay is not one of those prose poems about the virtue of working with your hands. It’s about the kind of thinking craftsmen do. He points out that computers are terrible at origami because there are certain mental maneuvers that cannot be calculated but can only be absorbed through experience and passed along as lore. Why, Crawford asks, is this sort of thinking, which is imparted in shop class, being chased out of schools? Why are so many students steered toward lives in a cubicle?
One subtle pleasure of Crawford’s essay is the way he describes the invisible struggle for agency — the way managers take decision-making authority away from workers, the way parents take decision-making authority away from kids, the way educators close off options without any debate.
The third Sidney goes to Calvin Trillin, whose description of his late wife, Alice, is impossible to summarize but is full of beautiful moments and memorable insights.
“Do you feel more comfortable with attractive women because you don’t have to worry about being resented?” Trillin asked Alice when they were young. “She looked at me as if I’d intruded on something that was meant to be private.”
Later, he writes, “When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child — a subject of considerable discussion among some parents we knew — we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.”
At one point, Alice was working at a camp for children with genetic disorders. She wondered how one child, L., could be so cheerful, even though she neither grew nor could digest food. Then she saw a letter from L.’s mother: “If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.” Alice pulled aside Trillin: “Quick. Read this. It’s the secret of life.”
A bigger slew of Sidney winners will be revealed Sunday.