Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2012 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5773
Undermining the values that enable people in poverty to escape it? Sadly, yes
By A. Barton Hinkle
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Damien Coleman lives in the Roseland section of Chicago one of the worst neighborhoods in America. He has two children, no wife, no college degree, and he works at a shoe store. He is a very successful young man.
Coleman is successful because he is much better off than many of his peers. The New York Times Magazine recounted Coleman's journey in a recent cover story on President Obama and poverty. The article drives home two points: (1) Obama has forgotten his lofty rhetoric about reducing poverty in America (and the article aims to remind him), and (2) reducing poverty will require something different from the War on Poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson which isn't working, hasn't for a while, and maybe never did.
Granted, such a judgment depends on the definition of "working." According to a recent study by the Cato Institute, the federal government has 126 separate anti-poverty programs. If their aim is simply to alleviate the worst material hardships by providing basic necessities, then taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor works to some extent. But if the goal is to reduce poverty, rather than merely treat its symptoms, then those programs are a colossal failure.
The past four decades bear out that lesson. Since the Johnson administration the country has spent more than $16 trillion (not billion trillion) fighting poverty. Result? "Americans who live below the poverty line are much less likely to be hungry or malnourished today than they were then," says The Times. "A majority of families below the poverty line now have material possessions that would have been unthinkable luxuries in the 1960s: air-conditioning, cable TV, a mobile phone." And yet: "In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent. . . . In 2010, one in every 10 American children lived in deep poverty" that is, in families with income less than 50 percent of the poverty line.
Conservatives complain, with some justification, that poverty metrics keep moving the goalposts e.g., by pegging poverty rates to a percentage of median income, a trick that measures relative inequality rather than any absolute shortage of material necessities. This is true to an extent. At the same time, nobody in his right mind would call the current deep-poverty benchmark $11,000 per year for a family of four too high.
Such a family will continue to receive massive amounts of government aid. According to the Cato study, over the next 10 years "federal and state governments will spend $250,000 for every American currently living in poverty, or $1 million for every poor family of four." Yet more than likely, those families will be just as poor in a decade as they are now. Why?
The Times strongly suggests the problem is cultural. The older folks in Damien Coleman's neighborhood worry the progress they once saw is "rooted in thin soil," because there is a "lack of discernable order," an "absence of . . . coherence." Those are the words of Barack Obama, in "Dreams from My Father," describing what he saw as a community organizer in Chicago.
The rest of the article backs him up: "In the 1960s, most Americans, rich, middle-class, and poor, were raising children in two-parent homes; they lived in relatively stable, mixed-income communities; they went to church in roughly similar numbers; their children often attended the same public schools. Today, those social factors all diverge sharply by class, and the class for which things have changed most starkly is the poor. Damien may have a cellphone, but he has never met his father."
And yet rather than address such problems, the Obama administration may be contributing to them by expanding the welfare rolls, further undermining the values that enable people in poverty to escape it. As Cato notes, the administration has loosened eligibility requirements, including "categorical eligibility," which "allows states to declare large numbers of families eligible for food stamps without actually going through the individual eligibility process." What's more, thanks to the 2009 stimulus bill, "states that succeed in getting people off welfare lose the opportunity for increased federal funding. And states that make it easier to stay on welfare . . . are rewarded with more taxpayer cash. The bill even let states with rising welfare rolls continue to collect their 'case-load reduction' bonuses."
The Times article suggests a need to spend even more. Yet it's hard to see how doing more of the same will produce either hope or change. Here, an analogy put forward by The New Republic's John McWhorter seems fitting. A pedestrian who is struck by a car should get help. He certainly cannot be blamed for his circumstance. But if he hopes to walk again, the day will come when he will have to do the hard and painful work of physical therapy. Nobody else can do it for him, and to extend the analogy no amount of money can buy him out of it.
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A. Barton Hinkle is Deputy Editor of the Editorial Pages at Richmond Times-Dispatch Comment by clicking here.
© 2011, A. Barton Hinkle