Three Indicators: Child poverty rates, a bank heist in Lebanon, Ethereum merge : The Indicator from Planet Money Hands up! A bank heist with a toy gun exposes the chaos in Lebanon's financial system. That, plus declining child poverty rates, and Ethereum's "Merge" on indicators of the week.

For sponsor-free episodes of The Indicator from Planet Money, subscribe to Planet Money+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

Poverty, heists, .eth: Coulda been worse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1123605312/1123611611" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Here on THE INDICATOR, we look through the flashy doom-mongering that you might see in the news, and we like to show a balanced analysis of the world as it really is.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

So this week, we bring you three indicators of things that we admit have a starting point that isn't so great. But zoom out the lens a little, they are not as bad as they could have been.

WOODS: Could have been worse - shrug emoji.

WONG: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. This week, we're joined by Jeff Guo from Planet Money.

Hey, Jeff.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: Guys, it's so exciting to be here. I have been looking forward to this literally all week.

WONG: We are thrilled to have you.

WOODS: It is mutual.

WONG: So this week, Jeff, Darian and I will be talking child poverty, the Ethereum merge and a very unusual bank holdup in Beirut.

WOODS: First up in our could-have-been-worse indicators, we've got Wailin Wong.

WONG: My indicator is 5.2%. That is the child poverty rate in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And, of course, any amount of child poverty is unacceptable, but this is a huge drop. The rate was almost 10% in 2020. This new rate, 5.2%, is the lowest rate ever recorded.

WOODS: That reminds me of the stories we've done over the last couple of years on child poverty and in particular the one on the expanded child tax credit where families got checks for thousands of dollars in the mail last year. And it looks like these relief measures showed up in the census numbers in this really noticeable way.

WONG: It did. Yeah. But then, you know, even zooming way out and looking at the child poverty rate over time, there's been this really big improvement. So a new analysis this week from The New York Times and a research group called Child Trends showed an almost 60% decline in child poverty over the last three decades. And then the big question is, what is responsible for that big drop? Because understanding those reasons can help shape future policy.

GUO: Wait. Is this, like, an econ fight? 'Cause I love it when economists fight.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: So here's the debate. Some economists give the credit to changes in welfare that were enacted during the Clinton administration. You might remember this big controversy from the '90s. And those changes added work requirements to qualify for assistance. So if you look at, for example, labor force participation for single mothers, that rate went up after the legislation. There was also, you know, higher state minimum wages and overall economic growth. But other economists, including the ones behind the Child Trends report, say most of the credit should go to expanded social safety net programs, things like the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP, or what we used to call food stamps.

GUO: Wailin, thank you. And now for something completely different. Darian, you said you had a heist story.

WOODS: I do. So this might be one of the most intriguing heist stories of the year. My indicator is $13,000, which is the amount of money this young woman named Sally Hafez took from a Beirut bank on Wednesday. And she ran into the bank with a bunch of other people using a toy gun. And she's actually, like, now a folk hero in Lebanon because that $13,000 was actually her own money. It was part of her own savings. She had been trying to withdraw the money to pay for her sister's brain cancer treatment, but the bank wouldn't let her withdraw more than $200 a month at a time. So she teamed up with an activist group in Lebanon called Depositors Outcry, and they marched into this bank in downtown Beirut. They locked the doors, and they demanded the money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Screaming).

WONG: Oh, my gosh.

WOODS: Yeah, it's super intense. And our INDICATOR listeners might be familiar with the wider economic context for what's happening here. We did a whole episode last year on Lebanon's dire financial crisis, and we followed this engineer called Sandro Kassas as he tried to find an ATM that would let him withdraw his own money. The Lebanese government restricts withdrawals from bank accounts. It placed these very strict limits on foreign exchange in 2019. That was all part of this desperate effort by the government to maintain the value of its currency, the Lebanese pound.

But all these actions by the government to, you know, prop up the currency comes at a huge cost to everyday people. There's been similar bank holdups, and that activist group warns that more are coming. And so this made me think about Sandro from last year. So I caught up with him, and, you know, he says that things in Lebanon have gotten even worse than last year. But, you know, for him, he's now got an engineering job in Malta. And so he's just waiting for his visa so that he can escape the country, which he says is a common story among his generation.

WONG: So it sounds like Sandro has faced the same issues as the woman who held up the bank. It's just that with the woman who held up the bank, it was, like, a much more extreme scenario of, like, how someone might react.

WOODS: Yeah.

WONG: I feel like having that video really drove it home. We're going to go to Jeff with something that's high stakes, and it's in - like, another indicator of a potential tragedy being averted, but much harder to get our minds around.

GUO: Yeah. So I guess you've all heard what's been going on this week with Ethereum, you know, that popular crypto platform?

WOODS: Yeah, like the second most popular cryptocurrency out there.

GUO: Yeah, yeah. But it does other things, too, Darian.

WOODS: OK.

GUO: You know, those, like, multimillion-dollar monkey NFTS?

WONG: Bored Apes?

WOODS: Bored Ape Yacht Club?

GUO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. The Bored Ape Yacht Club runs entirely on Ethereum, and the Ethereum network was using just an absurd amount of electricity, like, more than the entire nation of Belgium. But that all changed this week when Ethereum upgraded its software to use 99.95% less energy. They're calling this the merge. So crypto is now less bad for the planet. Could have been worse - the merge.

WOODS: But I still think we need an explainer from you, Jeff, or should I say, J.eth (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

WOODS: Jeth (ph), hit us.

GUO: OK.

WONG: I'm settling in. I'm settling in.

GUO: Get, like, a PowerBar or something. All right. So it's Ethereum. It is a crypto thing. You know it's blockchain. It's this digital ledger that tracks everybody's transactions and activities. So, you know, you can buy and sell stuff, transfer money, make stuff. You just put it on the blockchain. That's what you've probably heard. But I like to think of Ethereum as this giant communal whiteboard for the internet, and people are just trying to write things on this whiteboard, like, here's an NFT I made, or this is a contract that I just signed with Wailin for babysitting my cats.

WONG: I'm so allergic. I'm not signing this contract.

WOODS: But it's on the blockchain, Wailin.

WONG: I'll just take a Benadryl.

GUO: So we have this communal whiteboard. And to prevent chaos, only one person at a time can write on this whiteboard. This person's like the class secretary. They're writing down everybody's transactions and NFTs and stuff. How do you pick the class secretary? Well, it used to be you had people race to do the same really hard math problem, and the winner got to be the next secretary. And they got a small reward. That's what mining is - people competing to be the class secretary to collect that reward, which is, like, some crypto coin. But that means winning the math contest, and that means filling basements and warehouses full of computers running nonstop.

WOODS: OK, so that's where the electricity problem comes in.

GUO: Right. But now with the merge, the Ethereum network got rid of this wasteful math contest. Now it's like a lottery. You buy a lottery ticket - using cryptocurrency, obviously - and if you win, you get to be the class secretary.

WOODS: I mean, why didn't they think of this earlier? We could have saved a lot of electricity and carbon emissions.

GUO: They've literally been trying to do this for years, since, like, 2017.

WOODS: Right.

GUO: But this was such a busy and valuable platform. Everybody was, like, nervous. Hundreds of billions of dollars could have just vanished. So everybody wanted to be really, really careful. Now that the merge is finally done, people are celebrating. And one guy even wrote a song for the occasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OFFICIAL MERGE SONG")

JONATHAN MANN: (Singing) Singing the merge song, carbon footprint is all gone.

WONG: Is this song on the blockchain, too?

GUO: Yeah.

WOODS: Yeah. No, he made an NFT of it.

WONG: It's got to be.

WOODS: Yeah. He made an NFT of it.

WONG: Oh, of course he did. Of course he did.

WOODS: This episode was produced by Nikki Ouellette, with engineering from Robert Rodriguez. Catherine Yang checked the facts. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.