What You Should Think About Poverty

October 15, 2008

“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.

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