What You Should Think About Poverty

“For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Almost forty-five years ago, the President of the United States declared a War on Poverty.  Like the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, that militant metaphor ultimately proved misleading and counterproductive.  Unlike the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, our nation showed a stunning lack of resolve in dealing with this issue.  As Red Scare propaganda crystallized into an ideology of free market fundamentalism, the War on Poverty was displaced by an agenda that might be characterized as a war on the impoverished.

At the heart of this is a form of political opportunism that demonizes large groups of people by focusing on exceptionally bad, exceptionally rare, conduct within that group.  Often it is children who pay the price.  The typical beneficiary of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a single mother who started her family with every intention of paternal involvement.  The scope of this need would be much reduced if there were no deadbeat dads.  Yet the political dialogue that killed AFDC was dominated by the hateful distortion holding that the program was nothing more than a meal ticket for “welfare queens” who became pregnant repeatedly for no other reason than pursuit of a government check.

Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.  In some of the worst cases, child care expenses required to enable this makework approach outweigh the value of the work itself.  Even in the best cases, the policy change compounds the disadvantage of being born into poverty with the disadvantage of decreased parental involvement in the upbringing those children.

The present debate about immigration is similarly distorted.  The typical illegal immigrant is eager for honest work and reluctant to engage in criminal activity.  It is the lack of a viable alternative, not a preference for lawbreaking, that drives the illegal component of their activities.  Worse still, many politically vocal Americans are obsessed with the relatively rare phenomenon of “anchor babies.”  Their hatred for people who exploit our laws see their children born as U.S. citizens becomes an excuse for counterproductive malice in the framing of policies meant to govern the inevitable (and thoroughly useful) flow of foreign workers into our economy.

The theory capitalist extremists espouse is that “nanny state” largess somehow weakens our people and our economy.  The facts would beg to differ.  At the close of World War II, the average height of the Dutch had stagnated.  Growth dating back to a 19th century prosperity surge gave way to the devastation of brutal military occupation.  Yet generation by generation since, they have risen to become the tallest nation on Earth.  A major factor in the change was a body of social policy that insured no citizen of the Netherlands went hungry but for the choice to do so.

Progressive social minima, including universal health care and robust poverty relief, are not economic liabilities.  To the contrary, they provide economic stimulus on many levels.  In the most immediate sense, an uplift in public morale created by alleviation of domestic hunger, homelessness, and ailments is good for business.  So too is the increased productivity generated by direct beneficiaries of sensible welfare spending.  Coupled with a long term commitment to minimizing domestic deprivation, the intergenerational result is a markedly healthier, happier, and more productive national workforce.

This is not simply some theory crafted to manipulate voter behavior.  The Dutch example is the clearest of many.  Global happiness surveys routinely turn up the best results in Scandanavia.  I have a hunch those results are not on account of the weather.  Right wing protestations about the certain failure of the welfare state are soundly repudiated by its many real world successes.  Besides which, recent events should make as clear as day that cutthroat capitalists are in no position whatsoever to criticize the democracies of Western Europe in the arena of fiscal responsibility.

It may well be the case that individualism has, even deserves, a special place in American culture.  Yet this raises the question — what is truly more useful to the purpose of enabling American individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashion?  Is the entire answer nothing more than big guns and small taxes?  Might instead there be a wide range of constructive actions that can be taken to promote broad-based economic growth while giving our least fortunate citizens options they otherwise would be unlikely to experience?

The ideology of supply-side economics was evidently corrupt at first blush.  Yet it has taken thirty years of disastrous public policy, punctuated by events taking place just this year, to provide overwhelming hard evidence to support that conclusion.  For decades, some citizens upheld the private sector as intrinsically superior to the public sector, without any regard for technical specifics.  Those same people also insisted free markets were sacrosanct ideals that ought be held inviolate.  These beliefs went beyond “regardless of the cost” and to the extreme of “the idea that there is any price to be paid for this form of extremism is unthinkable.”

Of course, the price is enormous beyond words.  To many Americans, every homeless schizophrenic, every undernourished child, every undermedicated senior citizen, and every serious medical condition left untreated constitute a great failure.  To turn Stalin on his head, behind each of those statistics is a staggering number of personal tragedies.  Each of them is heartwrenching.  Most of them are preventable.  That we as a nation should eschew efforts to engage in that prevention is abominable.

Obviously there are limits to our resources.  Yet those resources are part of a dynamic system that thrives under sound stewardship.  This same system withers when abused or neglected.  Trickle down economics endorsed a philosophy of deliberate neglect and fostered an environment of rampant abuse.  An ideal replacement would be a paradigm that transcends all ideology.  Yet if the ideal is unattainable, the least we can do is formulate a replacement ideology that fully recognizes the lessons to be learned by the realities of social spending around the world.

Just as Republicans never held any monopoly on patriotism, they also hold no monopoly on promoting economic growth.  Their leaders are quick to speak of growth as a justification for even deeper descent into the bowels of voodoo economics, but their ideas have been shown to create a false sense of prosperity amidst a backdrop of enormous fundamental problems.  Refusal to address those growing problems over such a long span of time is a big factor contributing to the crisis our economy faces today.  If we are ever to get serious about eliminating American poverty, we must first transcend the poverty of ideas afflicting this nation for the past few decades.

2 Responses to What You Should Think About Poverty

  1. Demonweed wrote: > Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.

    Which implies that the (as you say) “very idea of welfare” is rational.

    Which implies that we must all be compelled — by a bureacratic elite — to support others, whether we choose to or not, whether we care to or not.

    Which implies that governmental bureaus are more capable than we ourselves at running individual lives.

    Which implies that the inalienable rights of each are, after all, not so inalienable.

    I tell you what, friend: you sign all that, have it notarized, and then I’ll take it under consideration.

  2. Demonweed says:

    The welfare state need not compel anyone to support anyone else. Ideally, citizens always have the option to retreat into the woods and live out whatever beliefs they might have about prosperity springing unaided from the will of rugged individualists. Ideally, no citizens would be stupid enough to harbor such a belief. After all, history and modernity are packed with evidence showing that the decline of institutions that act in a nation’s general interest leads to a decline in the ability of a nation’s workers to generate new wealth. Likewise, wherever effective action is taken to promote the general welfare (one of the three duties of government as established in the very first paragraph of the Constitution, for those Americans who somehow skipped 8th grade civics lessons,) the end result is an environment more hospitable to honest workers.

    What is irrational is clinging like an infant to the security blanket of a corrupt and completely worthless ideology. Anarcho-capitalism rests on willful ignorance regarding the importance of government at every level from issuing a stable currency to protecting legitimate businesses from thieves and fraudsters. Wealth generated in a civilized context may require the effort of individuals, yet it also requires that civilized context. One may well argue about the portions, but it is just plain stupid to argue that the anarchy to follow from a completely unfunded government is the best possible environment for profitable endeavors.

    Some ideologues are not so foolish as to call for an end to police, courts, and armies; yet still foolish enough to insist that there is no general interest beyond maintaining those rudiments of government. Yet their ideology is an incredibly poor excuse to ignore reality. The reality is that state support for education can and does render a national workforce more skilled. The reality is that universal health care policies create a healthier, happier, and more productive citizenry than cutthroat alternatives. The reality even happens to be that generous poverty relief programs make an economy more efficient by way of crime reduction, increased public morale, and a much better chance that dependents on the state will eventually rise up to make their own way in the economy.

    The practical arguments should not need to be made to any responsible adults. The postwar history of Western Europe is nothing but a large body of proof that compassion in economics is not at all the liability that a rugged individualist mindset happens to be. No doubt most Americans are of the mind that, in an ideal society, individuals should be able to prosper as a reflection of their personal accomplishments. Take the Anglo-American comparison. British universal health care, housing subsidies, and a public dole of unlimited duration combine with a long tradition of rigid class distinction. Yet for the past thirty years there has been more intergenerational socioeconomic mobility in England than there is in the United States. The value we claim to place on merit is not reflected in the real consequences of our actual economic policies.

    It is also the case that for the past thirty years, American workers have enjoyed virtually nothing of our nation’s growth while dynastic heirs gobble it all up. The anomaly of the self-made tycoon or the celebrity entertainer wallpapers over a deeper reality in which the nation’s wealth is increasingly more concentrated in the hands of the idle rich. Our economy’s greatest weakness is not that blind quadriplegics fail to spend their days out hunting for work. It is that heirs to old money can do nothing at all constructive and simply ride their social status from a large fortune to an even larger fortune.

    The ownership society is all well and good if we agree that the purpose of life is to make money. It is entirely possible to be a citizen of Switzerland or France or even Holland and dedicate your life to the pursuit of wealth. There are successes and failures in that regard in all of those nations. However, it is sick and twisted to demand that every individual in a society adopt that purpose as their own. Perhaps the best way to frame this is to pose a simple question. Should a person who works hard all his life until reaching old age and losing the ability to perform a particular profession enjoy dignity in his twilight years, or must that dignity be entirely dependent on shrewd investments made during that working career? Must we be a nation of Gordon Gecko cliches to be prosperous, or might we stop being childish about these issues and recognize that prosperity is actually enhanced by a paradigm that accommodates Americans who choose to pursue happiness by holding something nearer and dearer to their hearts than the worship of Mammon?

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