Does Michael Barone Understand Poverty?

Greg Mankiw points us to a criticism of John Edwards from Michael Barone:

His shtick on how many Americans live in poverty is going to wear thin. His stump speech includes a line about a little girl whose parents couldn’t afford a winter coat. Give me a break. You can buy a little girl’s winter coat at Wal-Mart for $10. That’s the price of taking the little girl out to lunch at McDonald’s. As Juan Williams points out in his book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It, no one in America is stuck in poverty if he or she does three things: graduates from high school; gets a job, any job; refrains from having children before getting married. Poverty comes not from any structural failure of society but from dysfunctional behaviors. Edwards’s poverty shtick is a crock.

Greg notes:

Barone fails to mention that we have textile and clothing imports to thank for all those cheap coats.

One of his readers writes:

If any of you looked at the Walmart website, a warm girl’s winter jacket costs 20 dollars (19.82). It’s possible that the website doesn’t have some items that they sell in stores, however let’s agree that 20 dollars is a non-neglible sum of money.

Whether the coat costs $10 or $20, the cost of paying rent, buying food, paying for health care and so forth are not free. To suggest that the only reason people are poor is dysfunctional behavior suggests to me that Mr. Barone has little right to criticize John Edwards.

Update: It seems Brad DeLong was also annoyed by Barone’s oped. One point about Greg’s free trade comment, wouldn’t it be ironic if it turns out the girl’s father lost a job to foreign competition. One reason why Senators from the Carolinas – such as John Edwards and Lindsey Graham – are not free traders is that the demand for Carolina manufactured apparel was reduced by the elimination of the Multifibre Agreement quotas.

Update II: Brendan Nyhan says Barone does not understand relative pricing. Michael Barone thought that the relative price of that coat was one McDonald’s Happy Meal. Brendan writes:

But Brad DeLong writes that “neither Greg nor Barone shops at Wal-Mart often enough to know or surfs on over to the Wal-Mart web site to learn what girls’ winter quotes actually cost,” pointing out that the winter coats at actually cost $20-$35. Along the same lines, has Barone ever eaten at McDonald’s? Two people can eat lunch there for way less than $10.

If that coat costs $30 and a Happy Meal costs $3, then the relative price of that coats is ten meals not one. Heck, for the price of one coat, the girl’s mom could buy herself a meal, and buy another for eight of the girl’s friends! Is Mr. Barone buying tattered used coats and using the rest of his money to purchase a hamburger at some fancy restaurant?