Why We’re Never Going To End Poverty

Over at the New York Times, Peter Edelman has written a utopian column called,: Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?: The piece starts out reasonably enough, but as it goes on, it veers into pure Marxian nonsense.

RONALD REAGAN famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans – 15 percent of the population – now counted as poor, it’s tempting to think he may have been right.

Look a little deeper and the temptation grows. The lowest percentage in poverty since we started counting was 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983. In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet 15 million more people are poor today.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children – i.e., welfare – in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

…At least we have food stamps. They have been a powerful antirecession tool in the past five years, with the number of recipients rising to 46 million today from 26.3 million in 2007. By contrast, welfare has done little to counter the impact of the recession; although the number of people receiving cash assistance rose from 3.9 million to 4.5 million since 2007, many states actually reduced the size of their rolls and lowered benefits to those in greatest need.

Race and gender play an enormous part in determining poverty’s continuing course. Minorities are disproportionately poor: around 27 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, versus 10 percent of whites. Wealth disparities are even wider. At the same time, whites constitute the largest number among the poor. This is a fact that bears emphasis, since measures to raise income and provide work supports will help more whites than minorities. But we cannot ignore race and gender, both because they present particular challenges and because so much of the politics of poverty is grounded in those issues.

We know what we need to do – make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top. Robin Hood would turn over in his grave.

So, all we need to do is take from each according to his abilities and give unto each according to his needs until poverty is eliminated! That sounds like a splendid plan – except that’s already been tried in the Soviet Union (among many, many other places) and it has always failed miserably. It’s also worth noting that we already have a debt so large that we have no idea how we can pay it out and we’re on track to run trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. If somehow, some way, we could tax the rich enough to close that gap and pour huge new resources into the poor (which incidentally, we can’t), it would dramatically slow down economic growth. That would hurt EVERYBODY and it would also mean there would be less to pillage from the rich and give to the poor, which would make doing it self-defeating. The honest truth is that barring some sort of miraculous technological advance, we will never eliminate poverty in this country.

The country that has probably come closest to actually ending poverty in the real world is Singapore, which is a tiny nation that has a homogeneous, highly educated workforce. Out of wedlock birth is frowned upon; it has a very small social safety net and a Libertarian view of government and regulation. In other words, if Ayn Rand were running a country, it would be Singapore. Adopting that sort of economic system here would dramatically increase growth, which would reduce poverty, but our population would still be less educated and we’d have a lot more single mothers. In other words, it would be a step in the right direction, but there is no “fix” for poverty in this country. Moreover, encouraging more bad behavior by punishing the producers in our society and rewarding the non-producers is the last thing we need.

Wise people recognize that there’s a lot to be said for trying to improve people’s lot in life, but there’s nothing to be said for trying to create heaven on earth. There have always been poor people in this country and there always will be. The best way to help the poor isn’t encouraging dependency; it’s encouraging marriage along with keeping the growth rate high, which will create more jobs and allow as many poor Americans as possible to work their way out of poverty.

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