The Cost of People

Autism Speaks has said we cost society over $2.3 million over our lifetime.  From their recent event about us and without us:

Financially, we estimate it costs 2.3 million dollars to care for one person with autism for their lifetime, and it will be well over $137 billion dollars for all our children.

Actually, Suzanne Wright, one of the founders of Autism Speaks, misquoted her own orgnization’s research, that said:

This research found that intellectual disability plays a major role in the cost of autism to individuals, families, and society as a whole. The costs of autism per year are nearly twice as high on average for children and adults with intellectual disability than for children and adults without intellectual disability, $2.3 million in the U.S. and £1.5 million in the U.K. ($2.4 million) for those individuals who are impacted by intellectual disability compared with more than $1.4 million in the U.S. and £917,000 ($1.46 million) in the U.K. for those who do not have intellectual disability.

They further claim that 45% of individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) have intellectual disabilities.  There’s a lot of reasons why this 45% number is inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter to this discussion.  Let’s just assume that Suzanne did new research that found our cost of autism was $2.3 million over our lifetime.

Usdollar100-mediumTheir research hasn’t yet been officially published as far as I can tell, and, thus, not peer reviewed.  So I don’t know the factors that went into deciding what a “cost” is.

For instance, my family has a mortgage payment. Is that a cost? Is it a cost if it is paid for out of Social Security? Is it a cost if it is paid out of employment? What if I rented? If I was in a group home, is that a cost? Is it really a cost to society if someone is being paid with this money, who then uses that money to pay for things like their house?

So let’s look at neurotypicals, while we figure out cost. I would say that US residents cost more than Chinese residents. And I can prove it.

China sets their national poverty line at 2300 RMB per person.  That’s $377 per year, according to Google. I imagine it’s pretty darn tough to live on $377 per year or less per person (somehow 150,000,000 Chinese are making this) but the World Bank says that this is the minimum necessary to live to their standards on, so I’ll take their word for it.

In contrast, the USA’s poverty level, set by the USA government is $23,050 for a family of four, or $5,762 per person (note that different family sizes have different poverty levels).

Now, one could take these apples-and-oranges numbers and say, “Wow, poor Americans cost society 15x more than poor Chinese!” (if you looked at rich Americans and rich Chinese, the numbers would be much more dramatic).

Or you could say this is a bogus comparison. Costs, standards of living, and measurement of poverty differ between the two nations. You can’t compare things that way. But you also can’t say that the American who owns a beat up car (a luxury most Chinese don’t own) is necessarily wasteful – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t (and certainly not all Americans own cars), but regardless he probably doesn’t see his way of getting to work as waste.

Now, I’m not saying China is doing well – obviously when you have 150 million people living on less than $377 a year, there’s a major problem there, and something the rest of the world should care about (although, generally, we don’t).

So, does that American cost world society more than that Chinese? Is this even a valid question to ask?

200px-Carbon_dioxide.svg

Lewis Structure of carbon dioxide, from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

We can try looking at another measure, CO2 emissions. These emissions cost the entire world, not just the country they are created in. Everyone int he world pays for these emissions. So let’s look at China and the USA, the #1 and #2 CO2 emitting countries in the world.

China emits 6.2 tonnes of CO2 per person, according to Wiki in 2009.

The USA emits 17.2 tonnes per person.

So, here, the USA hurts the world about 3 times more than China does, on a per-person basis (of course China has more than 3 times the people so as a country they create more CO2, but they create less CO2 per person).

For what it’s worth, Qatar leads the world in per-capita CO2 emissions at 44.0 tonnes per person, about 2.5x what the US and 7x what China does.

So, is the American not costing the world, while the Qatar citizen is costing the world immensely?

Regardless, how much CO2 cost does the average autistic have?  How does that compare to the successful business executive?  Who really costs more?

What people really mean when they say someone costs society is that someone gets the money that provides for their living through a method that isn’t considered noble or acceptable. It’s noble to be a rich guy who made millions out of selling bogus securities on bad mortgages. Or the guy that knows that a good deal of the people receiving student loans don’t have a chance in hell of actually being able to pay them back, but knows that he can rely on insurance and the government to bail him out. He’s not costing society, even though that student will not be able to purchase a house or start a family because of the crushing loan.

Often people think there is a cost if someone isn’t working. There are 5.1 million stay-at-home mothers in the USA.  That’s 1.7x the number of autistics, according to Autism Speaks! Are they a drain on society? After all, they aren’t working. Yet I never see articles talking about the cost of stay at-home-moms (for good reason).

189px-Lindsey_Graham,_Official_Portrait_2006

Senator Lindsey Graham

Or we can look at people who receive income and services from the government.  In 2011, the average Congressional salary was $174,000 per year.  So, assuming Lindsey Graham made average salary, his 20+ years of congressional service cost us $3,480,000 – not other benefits, which are substantial.  Regardless, it costs us more to have Lindsey Graham in office for just a small portion of Lindsey’s life (20 years is just 27% of a 75 year old estimated lifespan) than it costs for a lifetime of support for an autistic with an intellectual disability, according to Autism Speaks. Assuming a 75 year lifespan, the autistic that “costs” 2.3 million USD will cost, on average, $31,000 per year.  That’s substantially less than the $174,000 we pay the average congressman – 5.6x more than the autistic with intellectual disabilities.

What’s interesting to me is that people allow this type of rhetoric at all. It’s absurd to try to figure out if a Congressman or an autistic person “costs” more. Particularly when cost is a value-laden term – does it cost more if I receive social security and take the bus or if I work and drive a gas guzzling car? If I’m Chinese or American? Do I cost less to society if I create a financial system full of bad loans or if I receive food stamps?

It’s bullshit. The existence of people doesn’t cost society anymore than the need to eat does. You can’t have a society without food. Or people.

 

 

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