Writing at the New York Times, Eduardo Porter issues a plea for bipartisan cooperation to address “deep poverty” – the condition of some 16 million Americans who somehow receive far less in benefits than the welfare state routinely provides.
Unfortunately, Porter displays a shallow and cliched understanding of what the conservative side of the partisan divide believes, and seems unwilling to follow his observations where they lead, because he’s still sticking up for the bloated welfare programs that have so utterly failed to address the problem he describes. Everyone who is sincerely interested in the problem of deep poverty should consider having a little more faith in the free-market private sector they so often disdain.
“Republicans remain wedded to the fantasy that there is no problem tax cuts can’t fix,” Porter begins. “Democrats offer a more varied policy tool kit, hoping to lean against widening inequality and give a leg up to struggling workers.”
I hate to be the one to break it to him, but that “varied” Democrat “policy tool kit” has pissed away trillions of dollars over the past five decades, with little measurable effect on poverty. Great Society statism has held sway through Republican and Democrat administrations alike, with a fairly steep growth trajectory throughout. At the dizzying height of Food Stamp Nation, with some $80 billion a year spent just on food assistance, and a government of unprecedented size and power aggressively recruiting new dependents, how do we still have so many people living in the conditions Porter describes?
Even after accounting for every government assistance program – housing subsidies, food stamps, help with the electricity bill – nearly 16 million Americans still fall below 50 percent of the poverty line, measured by the Census Bureau’s revamped poverty measure that includes the effect of government support. That translates to roughly $8.60 per person per day for a family of four. That group is six million people larger than half a century ago.
No other advanced nation tolerates this depth of deprivation. It amounts to one in 20 Americans — a share that has refused to shrink despite five decades of economic growth.
“This should become a major issue,” the eminent Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson told me. “Unfortunately nobody has organized for these poor people. There is not a mobilization of political resources among the poor.”
What’s perhaps most surprising is how the apparatus of government assistance has turned its back on these people, not just failing to offer new strategies to help overcome the deepest deprivation but even removing critical programs that used to keep many of them afloat.
He’s alluding to the shift away from abject dependency and toward work-for-welfare requirements… but by his own admission, the condition of “deep poverty” was not much affected when those “critical programs” were in full bloom.
From 1983 to 2004, government benefits dropped by more than a third for 2.5 million single-parent families with the absolute lowest levels of income. For single parents with private income just above the poverty line, by contrast, they increased 74 percent, and even faster for those who made just under two times the poverty level.
The 1996 welfare overhaul, which ended the poor’s entitlement to aid from the federal government while increasing benefits for those who worked, sharply realigned the distribution of help — favoring the employed, those who are married and who have children, and leaving out the childless and those who had either no or very low earnings from work.
All in all, in the early 1980s more than half of government transfers to low-income families went to the very poorest. Thirty years later these families received less than one-third of the government’s help.
This choice, as a society, to target most of our help only to those who can help themselves exhibits a blinkered understanding of what perpetuates the deep, intractable poverty that affects many communities. But it serves a purpose. By believing the poor are not exerting enough effort, we allow ourselves not to care. This permits politicians — and voters — to go normally about their business while 16 million Americans live on $8.60 or less a day.
Might we ask what those shifting criteria of “deserving” vs. “undeserving” poor might be?
Does anyone recall a legal reform that stipulated very poor people should start receiving less assistance, while those just above the poverty line should receive more? Elsewhere in the article, Porter admits very little is known about “deep poverty” – which is a remarkable deficiency for a government that pours billions of dollars into countless studies of everything it can imagine – from the mating habits of heavy comic-book readers to the gambling strategies of monkeys – accompanied by an academic sector that professes to spend a great deal of its time studying social issues.
Anti-poverty programs consume a significant portion of federal and state budgets, and contrary to Porter’s assertions, there is a vast amount of organized political pressure dedicated to the fulfilling the needs of the poor. Poverty is a constant topic of political discussion. And yet, we know virtually nothing about who the deeply impoverished are, or how they got that way?
Can anyone think of a group of people who are impoverished, might have some difficulty signing up for our vast panoply of welfare programs, and are supposedly invisible to the all-seeing eye of the mega-state? People who have a hard time seeking legal employment of the sort that satisfies work-for-welfare requirements?
Are we talking about illegal aliens here?
Not only are illegals likely to make up a substantial fraction of the desperately poor, but our lunatic open-borders policies depress the wage base for everyone, and make it harder for poor American citizens to find work. The borders have been hanging wide open for roughly the same length of time intractable deep poverty has been defying the nourishing ministrations of the titanic welfare state.
When they do qualify for social programs, they consume resources that might be spent on impoverished American citizens. The taxpayers who finance the welfare state certainly didn’t intend for its resources to be spent on foreign nationals – although, for the record, they are also extremely generous to foreign nationals in need of assistance.
Porter writes that the current American antipoverty strategy “exposes the inadequacy of viewing poverty as personal failure and the limitations of relying so heavily on providing low-income working Americans with a tax break to encourage better behavior, get a job and just stop being poor.”
That’s the kind of thinking that makes it hard to come up with real solutions, because it’s just plain delusional. We are most certainly offering a lot more than “tax breaks” to the poor. Billions of dollars in positive benefits are provided. Pretending that isn’t true, in order to take cheap shots at believers in the free market and caricature them as maniacally obsessed with tax breaks, will prevent any new strategy from ever being formulated.
While we’re on the subject, however, what justifies this mockery of growth-oriented tax cuts as a solution to poverty? It’s the one thing that hasn’t been tried in decades. Porter mocks the notion of encouraging the poor to show “better behavior, get a job, and just stop being poor.” What’s the alternative? Why would any society find it desirable to offer a wholesale “solution” to poverty that doesn’t involve working, why does anyone imagine such a “solution” would be sustainable in a nation as large as the United States… and how can anyone doubt that if a route to prosperity that doesn’t involve work is offered, many people will choose it instead of work?
It’s only cruel to tell poor people to get jobs if there is no way for them to do so. Top-heavy, high-taxing, regulation-crazed Big Government is a demonstrable failure at providing robust job growth. Sorry, class warriors, but there is no way to change that dismal course that doesn’t involve some folks getting tax breaks. There is no way to have a rising tide that does not lift all boats.
Right after he asserts that “viewing poverty as a personal failure” is an inadequate approach, Porter proceeds to list the personal failures that contribute to deep poverty:
Deep poverty, according to the scholars who contributed to the journal, is an ecosystem, where bad individual decisions occur within broken environments, where the social glue has come unstuck. Cognitive abilities and character are important at the individual level, but they can’t be cleanly separated from their environment. Indeed, deep poverty has no single, or most important cause — not family, neighborhood, job or education. Plucking at one or the other, alone, won’t do.
“Deprivations come bundled, packaged, and may reinforce each other over time,” said Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who is the co-author of an essay in the journal with his doctoral student Kristin L. Perkins. “The implication for policy is that one can’t just think of extracting out individual causes for policy action.”
That sounds like a ringing rejection of the old statist approach to me – a blunt admission that nothing in the Democrats’ allegedly varied toolbox of policy solutions will make one damn bit of difference, because they actually have very shallow ideological box with exactly one tool in it: Big Government spending.
There was a prominent politician who recently proposed a different approach: linking welfare benefits to positive life counseling that would help poor Americans break the bad habits that kept them from doing better in life, and provide them with useful skills for managing their time and money. His name is Paul Ryan, and he is currently Speaker of the House.
Democrats responded to his innovative proposals by accusing him of trying to enslave poor people, and even kill them off to cull the weak from the herd – and it was no less than Barack Obama who leveled the latter charge of “Social Darwinism” at Ryan. So much for the Democrat Party and its varied toolbox.
“Witnessing the presidential campaign debates, I am not optimistic that deep poverty is going to become anybody’s priority. If anything, the very poor seem to recede into the background,” Porter judges.
Every Republican candidate who talks about securing our border, enforcing American citizenship laws, and lifting the burden of illegal immigration from the American economy is doing more for the “very poor” than any Democrat to take the stage since Lyndon Johnson. Every Republican who talks about reducing the tax and regulatory burden of government to inspire economic growth is helping the poor.
Everyone who joins the fight to repeal ObamaCare is helping the poor – look at how many billions Democrats flushed into that sewer, for nothing.
That money could have bought a lot of meals, put roofs over a lot of heads, and most importantly, stimulated economic growth if left in the hands of the private sector. Real health care reform will make medical services cheaper and more plentiful – nothing becomes cheaper without becoming more plentiful, and vice versa. That will mean a lot more to poor people who get sick than a busted redistribution scheme designed to hook middle-class Americans on a new welfare benefit, namely the subsidies they can no longer afford health insurance without.
One of the core complaints in Porter’s column is welfare benefits being shifted away from the deeply poor to people who are better off. I give you ObamaCare, the program that puts law students on Medicaid, and makes it impossible for married professionals to afford insurance without a welfare subsidy.
The alternative to poverty is work. That’s not ideology – it’s a fact. Denying that fact leads to expensive, futile madness. Accepting it is the first step to solving a great many social problems.