Eradicating Poverty, Part 1

Fortunately, innumerable efforts, both governmental and private, have been initiated to alleviate poverty.  People trapped within it need all the assistance they can get.  But, whereas all these well-meant endeavors are helpful to one degree or another, their combined effect has been to institutionalize poverty rather than to abolish it.  Despite our best intentions, it shows no sign of going away.

The purpose of this essay is to show, first, how disadvantageous poverty really is, not just for the poor, but for society in general and, second, how it might be gotten rid of once and for all.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT

IT’S TOO DANGEROUS

Unsurprisingly, poverty doesn’t suit people.  True, those forced into it learn, after a time, they have no choice but to endure it, but they cannot fail to resent it nonetheless.  Indeed, there is scarcely a time when, some place in the world, that resentment has bubbled up from the surface, overwhelmed the current statis, and exacted vengeance on perceived oppressors.  Take, for example, what has become known as the Great Fear in France between 1789 and 1793.  Then, angry peasants vandalized some 4,700 countryside manor houses, pillaged wine cellars, broke furniture, burned documents and, like as not, the manor house as well.  To climax such festivities, the lord of the house was dragged outside, forced to renounce his rights, and then beaten to within an inch of his life if not well past it.

Those events were, of course, long ago and, in any event, few of us own chateaux so they would seem irrelevant in our world today.  But they are, I would argue, worth recalling for the way in which they illustrate a fundamental attitude that is as alive today as it was two-and-a-quarter centuries ago: the poor don’t like being poor and, from time to time, they are not loathe to remind us of it.  Witness more contemporary examples of civil disobedience in the Los Angeles Watts riots, in the peasants’ protests all over China, in the South African miners’ strikes, in Moscow street demonstrations, and in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Then there was the colorful outburst on August 7, 2012, in Marinaleda, Spain, when bands of unarmed members of the Workers Syndicate of Andalusia stormed into the Carrefour and Mercadona Supermarkets, loaded the stores’ shopping carts with staples and marched out, unopposed, with the unpaid merchandise.  Outside, they distributed the supplies of sugar, pasta, cooking oil, rice, and so on to the town’s hungry, and no doubt grateful, poor.  The absence of civil authority in this peaceful affair was easily accounted for: it was orchestrated by the town’s populist major, Sanchez Gordillo.

Finally, it should be noted that the poor don’t always express their dissatisfaction violently.  Depending on one’s political outlook, they show up at the polls in encouragingly or alarmingly large numbers offtimes determining the course of a nation’s history not always in its best interest.

My point is that whether as a threat of physical violence or of social upheaval, the discontent of the poor puts society most everywhere in an uncomfortably defensive position.  The very wealthy protect themselves by driving around in armored cars, building high walls around their residences, and hiring guards to prevent their children from being kidnapped.  The rest of us, less urgently pressed, nonetheless feel exposed to house break-ins, street crime, and auto theft.  In any case, the righteous anger of the poor toward their condition in life leaves us all sitting on a socio-political fault line uncertain as to when and how the next eruption will well up from below.

And that’s not the only reason why poverty is such a bad idea.  Read on.

IT’S TOO EXPENSIVE

There are so many federal, state, and local governmental programs that have been set up to help the poor that their total cost is not easy to come by.  As reported in the New York Times, Michael Tanner of the CATO Institute has recently estimated that the 126 federal programs he identified spend $668 billion a year.  Adding the $284 billion spent by state and local authorities, he arrives at an annual governmental expenditure of $952 billion.

Inevitably, these figures are estimates if for no other reason than the objectives of the programs, such as educational support, are not exclusively limited to poverty relief.  Nevertheless the total numbers, which average out to something like $20,000 for every poverty-stricken American, are in the range of our annual federal deficit.

What the figures do not include is what we spend on poverty’s byproducts, as it were.  Consider what it cost taxpayers to combat social problems such as law enforcement, incarceration of criminals, domestic problems, and the like—not all directly attributable to poverty, certainly, but often aggravated by it.

Finally, the private contributions made by the many charitable organizations involved in poverty relief has to be added to its overall cost to society overall.  The Result’s Internet site lists 19 devoted to general poverty relief, 15 focused on helping poor children, 11 on alleviating hunger, and 28 more on other poverty-related causes—83 in all whose total contributions must be assumed to be in the multi-millions.

As paradoxical as it sounds, the bottom line is we can’t afford poverty.

And that’s not the end of it.

IT’S TOO DAMAGING

It is fashionable for politicians to extol America as a land of equal opportunity.  However, of all the myths bandied about in this land, that particular one has to be among the most egregious.  No one can realistically look upon how we have fashioned poverty’s environment and find any semblance of the aforementioned vaunted equality.  The truth is we have condemned a majority of the poor to single, working-mother households in which youngsters, growing up in them, are largely deprived of adult guidance and left to absorb their acculturation from television shows, video games, and street lore—none of which is a promising source of moral instruction.  Reaching school age, they are thrust into the most abysmal education the teachers’ unions can devise leaving them with no practical skills of use to the outside world.  Next they are then sent out into a world that offers them little more than a choice between menial labor, living on government handouts, or, more invitingly, criminal pursuits.  Should they seek escape from these circumstances, their diversion is limited to church attendance where their victimization is confirmed, rock music that drowns it out, or drugs that allow them to forget it.  Not surprisingly, the result of these sordid circumstances is an understandably embittered lower class—lower in education, lower in utilitarian skills, lower in personal initiative, lower in honesty, lower in obedience to the law, and lower in morality.

A couple of caveats.  Certainly there will always be a trickle of souls who, by virtue of their extraordinary determination, intelligence, and talent, do manage to overcome such a background and participate in this “equal opportunity” of ours.  But the good fortune of these exceptional people does not alter a realistic characterization of the general status in which the poor are entrapped.

And, it goes without saying that there are a multitude of good, hard-working, honest individuals among the poor just as there are despicable, indolent, and dishonest scoundrels among the rich.  It is grossly unfair—not to say, downright stupid—to judge anyone on the basis of which level of society they hail from including, of course, what I have labeled as the lower class.  Individuals have every right—must have every right—to be judged on their own.

But these considerations are peripheral to the facts on the ground.  As might be anticipated, the misery of the poor spills over and degrades our “American way of life” generally.  Academic studies have confirmed that the success of a nation has less to do with its natural resources and other geophysical attributes than with its population’s national character—its ability to govern itself well, to work industriously and innovatively, and for its diverse groups to live peaceably among themselves.  Hence the success of resource-poor Hong Kong and the failure of resource-rich Iran.  And hence the dilution of our traditional norms is steadily nudging us toward the latter and away from the former—a discernible trend that has already taken its toll on our culture, prosperity, and future prospects.

These observations are, obviously, politically incorrect.  Many, I’m sure, will bridle at the very mention of a lower class as though pretending not to notice the elephant in the room will make it disappear.  But before condemnations of discrimination ensue, allow me to point out that although my generalizations may be more outspoken, I strongly suspect that they are not mine alone.  Ask any totally-unbiased, liberal-minded Chicagoan which neighborhood he would choose for his family’s Saturday evening strolls, Northbrook or South Chicago.  If, without a moment’s hesitation, he selects the former, I contend his perfectly rational decision was based on a generalization—dare I say prejudice—that sprung to mind.

To underscore the distinction between the observed characteristic of a group as a whole and those of its members, I refer to Henry Powel Boyle’s publication in 1662 of his law regarding the behavior of gases.  His discovery has been crucial to the development of the internal combustion engine and a host of other devices we depend on today, yet it cannot predict the trajectory of any particular molecule within a gas nor pass judgment on its character dependent on whether it glides placidly about or keeps crashing into its neighbors.  In short, precise, useful information about the group; no information whatsoever about the individual members that comprise it.

Finally, there is one more reason we should regard poverty as intolerable.

IT’S SIMPLY IMMORAL

We in the United States are so used to enduring the poor in our midst that we have grown indifferent to the hypocrisy involved.  With a straight face, we champion our adherence to Judeo-Christian values, celebrate our freedoms, and congratulate ourselves on our prosperity whilst denying all these things to a quarter of our population.

Millions of people in our slums and in our impoverished rural areas wake up every morning with the task of scraping together enough of the necessity of life for themselves and their family to survive.  And they go to sleep every night with no assurance that the next day will be any better.  That’s not the American dream; it’s the American nightmare.

Whereas we manage to turn a blind eye to this blot on our society, not so our critics in other parts of the world.  One can’t debate with a European friend as to the relative merits of our two societies without our adversary throwing down his trump card: “the treatment of the underprivileged in your country is positively shameful!”

Winning the argument after that is an uphill battle.

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 2

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