Making Sure the Poor Are Always With Us

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Could you design a public policy that in both good times and bad, under economic growth or recession, with unemployment rates high or low - in fact, under any possible economic scenario - could you design a policy that guarantees that an alarming number of our fellow citizens lived in poverty?

What could motivate such a hopeless and self-defeating approach to ministering to the poor? And how would you react if you came to understand that the folks who promulgate this approach are the very people most fervently devoted to fighting the War on Poverty? These are vexing questions, particularly during a protracted recession, because this is the official policy we live under.

Perhaps the mystery can be solved if you ask what ought to be a simple question: What is poverty? Alas, the answer is poisonously divisive.

Pick a level of material well being - any level - and define poverty as having less than that. For example, a roof over your head, enough food to eat, warm clothes in the winter, access to basic medical care, education for your children, air conditioning, cable TV, cell phones, Nintendo, whatever - you can make up your own list. Under this definition, winning the War on Poverty can actually be an achievable goal. You can measure progress and, one great day, declare victory.

Everyone’s list will differ, but no matter what you put on yours can you deny that the poor have made tremendous and unprecedented material progress over the past 100 years? This despite periods of war, depression, stagflation, and all the bumps in the road that mark the fitful course of western civilization. By any objective measure, progress since the War on Poverty was first declared in the 1960s has been stellar.

But what happens if you define poverty as anyone living in or passing through the lowest quintile of income distribution? Progress becomes meaningless and victory unattainable because it is, mathematically, impossible. Absent authoritarian dictatorship enforcing draconian redistribution, some people will always make less than others, even as everyone’s level of material well being rises. And as society becomes wealthier as a whole, the absolute gap between the richest and poorest will always statistically grow, as it has since we lived in caves. The only way to eliminate inequality is to eliminate progress.

The Federal Government tells us that 37 million Americans now live in poverty. Isn’t that a shocking number considering we are the richest country on earth? Yet reality belies stock images of Okies sweltering in Hoovervilles. Did you know that three quarters of today’s poor have air conditioning, VCRs or DVD players, microwave ovens, and even their own cars - sometimes two? Almost half own their own homes. And although homeownership amongst the poor soared then dipped thanks to the mortgage fiasco, the average poor American still has more living space than the average middle class citizen in most European cities.

What about food and nutrition, the most pressing condition of poverty? On average, children growing up poor in America today eat so well that they are one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the average GI who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II. In fact, obesity is on the short list of self-inflicted problems that bedevil the poor.

Can these radically different perspectives on poverty be reconciled?

Spend a few hours on the web sites of the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services and try to make sense of what you find. There is a large and growing amount of data on income distribution and inequality. There is hardly a peep about the absolute standard of living enjoyed by a person at the government defined poverty line and how that has improved over time. Why is that? As a people, don’t you think we’d be proud to document the progress we’ve made?

Now, take a look at the long and growing list of government income redistribution programs whose eligibility depend on the official declaration of the poverty line. Here lies the answer to what motivates government policy. We have adopted a policy that guarantees the poor will always be with us, along with the millions of poverty industry professionals whose livelihood depends on serving them.

No doubt, the safety net does good things for the desperately needy. Can you imagine living in a society without one? And in the larger scheme of things, programs for the poor represent a minute fraction of the money consumed by runaway middle class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. But it’s not hard to see how this safety net might entangle those who are ready to graduate from poverty while crowding out private charitable actors who may have a different approach to encouraging behaviors that reduce long term, multi-generational dependency.

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