Eradicating Poverty, Part 3

THE NEEDS OF THE POOR

What distinguishes poor people from those of means is the lack of a finite number of necessities that is identified easily enough.  Provide these to even the most stalwart member of the underclass and he could not, in good conscience, consider himself poor any longer.

  • Civility
  • Education
  • Food
  • Health care
  • Shelter
  • Employment

For the sake of exposition, each of these necessities will be discussed as though it were already in place.

CIVILITY

Having tallied the cost of rectifying the damage created by rebellious inner city kids versus the moderate cost of bribing them to be good, the government had no trouble deciding to institute what it called the “Youth Stipend.”

It works this way.  Beginning with his thirteenth birthday, every kid, regardless of family circumstances, is entitled to an annual payment of $1,000 provided he maintains a clean record.  Two-hundred of that allowance is his to spend in any manner he chooses; the rest goes into an escrow account that is returned to him as a $6,400 bundle when he’s twenty.

All payments are dispensed in person by an adult who acts as a mentor.  As indicated, the payments are contingent upon the youth’s having kept his nose clean—no gang affiliation, no apprehensions, no drug use, no pregnancy, no vandalism, no school truancy, and so on.  Under a zero-tolerance policy, once a kid commits an infraction, his  annual payments are suspended and his escrowed account repossessed.

Assuming 25 million children are enrolled in the program at any given time, it costs 25 billion a year not including administration.  Granted the expenditure is not trivial, it is a bargain compared to what the government would otherwise spend on policing, incarceration, drug intervention and rehab, remedial education, youth counseling, and graffiti removal.  Naturally not every kid is susceptible to these inducements and instances have arisen in which a kid has used his first $200 check to buy drugs.  On the whole, however, the program is a success.  A youth, eyeing his twenty-one-year-old cousin squiring around girls in a serviceable used sport car, is more likely than not to emulate his cousin’s successful track record.  Thus millions of inner city kids are started on the road to constructive citizenship and given a decent education have a good chance of staying there.

Various businesses and foundations have latched on to the Youth Stipend by offering bonuses for various forms of exceptional achievement in sports, scholastic achievement, community service, etc.  Thus ambitious children are encouraged to apply themselves in the hope of winning one of the many lucrative prizes available.

EDUCATION

Communication can be defined as the transference of information from one entity to another.  Education, obviously, fits comfortably within this definition therefore one might suppose that whatever trends impacted communication in general would impact education as well.  And since one of the most dramatic trends in communication has been the precipitous drop in cost—trillions of bits fly from one end of the world to another for next to nothing—a reasonable assumption would be that the cost of education would have fallen correspondingly.  At least it would be reasonable had not education been in the grip of moribund teacher unions desperately clinging to outmoded methodologies.  Under the auspices of these obtuse, unyielding, and greedy hacks, education did not only fail to decline in price, its costs were unbelievably catapulted higher.

For the purpose of this essay, imagine the field of education rescued, years before, from its despots (who, by the grace of God, were tried and convicted for their offenses) leaving our schools free to innovate an entirely new system that provides our kids with a far better education at a fraction of its previous costs.  One of the first initiatives was the creation of a complete set of computerized K-12 courses complete with supplementary instruction, embodied quizzes, and a standardized reporting system available to tutors and parents.

As an introduction to the new system, forget classroom instruction, homework assignments, tests, grade levels, and scoring.  Students in this new system progress individually through a sequence of self-teaching, self-testing, computerized courses conducted by the best qualified educators in the country.  Picture study halls lined with carrels each occupied by a student working at his consul at his own pace—advancing to the next course level only after having mastered its prerequisites.  Qualified tutors are readily at hand to respond to any request for personalized help.

After taking basic courses in the fundamentals, students—in consultation with tutors and parents—are allowed to branch off into specialized curriculums such as liberal arts, applied sciences, foreign languages, shop mechanics, and so on.  They can change tracts but with the foreknowledge that such shifts would be bound to delay their graduation. Individual “graduations” come about when each student has completed the requisite courses in his chosen branch and has been presented with a transcript of his accomplishments.

The advantage of such a system to the school’s administration are these:

  • It is far more economical.  At least a year is shaved off the previous twelve-year requirement thanks to year-around schooling. Because the courses themselves contain explanatory material, fewer tutors are needed than teachers in the former conventional setting.  Nor does it require the heavy administrative costs that had been larded willy-nilly onto public schools.
  • Discipline is easier to maintain.  For one thing, students are aware that any disruptive behavior on their part would lead to the revocation of their Youth Stipend.  Lesser offenses can be countered by temporarily withdrawing a student’s access to his normal course material and substituting lectures on proper behavior.  Another helpful factor is when deprived of teachers to annoy and an audience of their peers to impress, problem students are less tempted to misbehave.
  •  Tutors can do a better job of shepherding students through their coursework thanks to computerized compilations highlighting individual student problems.  Thus they can provide specialized assistance in a timely way helping their charges over whatever obstacles have been encountered.
  •  Tutors are relieved of the tedious reporting chores that so detracted from teachers’ primary mission under the old system.  They can thus  devote their full time to doing what they enjoy—that is to say,  instructing children.

Advantages to students are these:

  • He gains flexibility.  On a day-to-day basis, he can adjust his free time to participate in sports; take on an outside, part-time job; join some enriching school activity such as instruction in a musical instrument.  In addition, each student can schedule his vacation time to mesh with that of his family.
  • As suggested above, students with inherent mathematical talent derive the excitement that comes with the discovery of advanced scientific areas.  Likewise, quick learners in liberal arts pursue courses that best prepare them for careers in law, business, political science, and so on.  In any case, they are relieved of the boredom of having to listen to the repetitive remedial instruction so characteristic of the old days.
  • Meanwhile, slower learners benefit as well.  Rather than being discouraged by headon comparison with their faster classmates, they are directed to vocational courses better fitted to their set of skills.  And since schooling in general is a more rewarding experience, few drop out.
  • Thanks to this new system, universities are assured of well-qualified entrants whom they can smoothly fit into their college-level curriculum.  At the same time, businesses can fill their job openings with literate, incentivized workers able to express themselves intelligibly .

FOOD

Whether explicitly stated in the law or not, American public opinion cannot countenance hunger among any segment of its population.  Therefore, we addressed the need as best we could by a combination of governmental and private handouts: food stamps, school lunches, soup kitchens, pantries, and the like.  Whereas these approaches did, by and large, meet the immediate nutritional needs of the poor, they acted as yet one more factor entrenching the recipients deeper and deeper into dependency and the government deeper and deeper into debt.  Fortunately, the present system described below has proven to be a far better solution all around.

Margie Smith, Helen Jones, and Ellie Thompson occupy different economic stations in life.  Margie is middle class; Helen, wealthy; and Ellie, poor.

Let’s follow Margie when she goes grocery shopping.  After filling her shopping basket, she hands the clerk at the checkout station two cards.  The first is a conventional, bank-issued debit card. The second is a government-issued, food-point card.  Swiping both cards, the clerk rings up her bill of $37.50 on his register that automatically applies the amount to both cards.  Having verified that the balance in Margie’s account is satisfactory, the bank reduces it by her purchase.  Similarly Margie’s purchase is checked against the balance in her food-point account to ascertain that her accumulated food purchases that month have not exceeded the officially established limit.  Once the charge goes through, the clerk hands Margie back her cards with a smile and she leaves the store with her merchandise.  Thus, aside from the minor inconvenience of being obliged to carry a second card, Margie’s shopping is trouble free—the  number of food points automatically added to her government account having been calculated to meet the needs of middle class families like her own.

The government’s standardized allowance fluctuates with the age and gender of the card holder.  Although Margie is the single mother of two children, such fluctuations do not, however, create complications on her part.  As the head of her household, she can consolidate her children’s allowances on her own card and leave it to the government to keep track of the bookkeeping.

The rules governing which items require food points for purchase are clearly spelt out.  Had Margie bought paper towels and charcoal on her shopping trip, those items would have been rung up separately as non-food items.  On the other hand, had she taken her family to a restaurant or bought fruit in a farmers’ market or attended a wedding breakfast, these activities would all have been considered retail food purchases and thus subject to the surrender of food stamps.

Now lets shadow Helen Jone’s trip to the market.  Because she is giving a dinner party for her friends that evening, Helen’s purchases, including two bottles of champagne and three cans of pate, come to $245.00.  When she presents her two cards at checkout, a problem arises.  Wheresas her bank welcomes the sum with an alacrity that suggests it would be happy to honor many more of the same, the government is less accommodating.  It so happens that her food-point account would be in arrears were the 245 point charge allowed to go through.  Although Helen began the month with exactly the same balance as Margie’s, her lavish spending habits had by now reduced it to only thirty points—215 points shy of the number required to validate her purchases.  However, a remedy is readily at hand.  By simply signing her bill, she authorizes the store to charge an additional $215 to satisfy her food point shortage.  In sum, whereas Helen’s shopping trip proceeded nearly as smoothly as Margie’s, it was a good deal more expensive.  Her $245 worth of groceries actually cost her $460 ($245 plus $116) and she has been put on notice that her food purchases for the  remainder of the month will cost her twice their posted price.

Finally, let me relate Ellie’s shopping experience.  Prior to going marketing, Ellie has taken a number of steps to reduce her dependence on store-bought food.  She grows vegetables in her garden, cans cherries from her fruit tree, and buys eggs from her neighbor’s hen house.  These economies, coupled with her habitual frugality, result in her grocery purchases each month consuming fewer points than those provided in the government’s standardized allowance.  Thus, at the end of the month when the government zeros out its citizens’ food-point accounts, Ellie’s bank statement is credited with $562, the number of dollars equivalent to her unused points—practically enough to compensate for her total grocery bills that month.

The Food Point Program has advantages that may not be apparent at first:

  • No question but that the scheme is a not-very-well-concealed form of income redistribution, but it does contain key voluntary and motivational elements.  Should Helen’s family endure a setback in their economic fortunes, she can choose to forgo her lavish parties and otherwise economize on her food purchases.  And were Ellie to slaken her point-saving efforts, her cash reward at month’s end would dwindle.
  • From a political standpoint the system is perfectly equitable; the law treats Margie, Helen, and Ellie exactly alike.  Only their behavior influences their outcomes.
  • Aside from some bureaucratic paper shuffling, the system costs the government nothing provided a necessary refinement is introduced:  to keep the inflow and outflow of dollars balanced the government replaces the one-dollar-one-food-point exchange rate with an open free market in which the government is not involved and the exchange rate fluctuates according to demand.  Under a free market, wealthy families in good times would drive up the price of food points thereby benefiting the poor so that they too would share, to one degree or another, in the prosperity.  Conversely, if a recession forced wealthy families to cut back on their food purchases, poor families would also be forced to do some belt-tightening as well.  In the case of an actual scarcity, the government could drastically reduce its monthly allowance forcing food point prices to rise even faster than food itself and thus allow the poor some access to whatever products were available.

HEALTH CARE

As is the case with poverty in general, the cost to society of ignoring the health of its citizens is more costly than improving it.  Common sense alone would indicate that a large segment of a population beset by childhood sicknesses, communicable diseases, and a profusion of physical ailments would represent more of a drag on the economy than contribute to it.  Hence, even setting aside humanitarian considerations, it behooved society to provide some level of medical care for all its citizens particularly the poor who, by and large, cannot readily afford paid-for services.  The only legitimate question is, then, what public health measures can be realistically provided at an affordable cost?  And since the government has the inviolable obligation to treat all citizens alike, any health care scheme must be made universal.  “Adminicare” came into being in response to these considerations.

Adminicare is an independent, nonprofit organization dependent exclusively on government funding but administratively independent of it.  For any given year, the government’s contribution to Adminicare is fixed, and with no other source of funding or access to credit, the organization is forced to live strictly within its budget plus any accumulated savings from prior years.  It is run by qualified professionals chosen by their peers to serve one term, three-year appointments rotated so only one-third are replaced each year.  Annual reviews by outside auditors vigorously check for fraud, excessive salaries, and over-generous pensions.

Now let’s subject the three women we encountered in our discussion of food points to Adminicare’s operations.

Starting as before with middle-class Margie Smith, we find her to be a consistent, if sometimes disgruntled, patient of Adminicare.  On the positive side, she can bring her children into its nearby clinic at any time and without making an appointment.  Upon arrival, the only paperwork involved in her admission is the completion of a simple form explaining the reason for her visit.  This, when matched with her family’s computerized medical record, gains her cost-free, prompt attention by a competent member of the clinic’s salaried staff.

A few words need to be said here of Adminicare’s transparent record keeping for it is an essential part of its system.  Patients’ records are kept in the cloud so as to be available to all the organization’s practitioners no matter where located.  A portion of those same records are accessible to Margie as well.  Has she a mind, she can enter her opinion of Adminicare’s facilities and staff and read the opinions of other patients in order to get first-hand accounts about any procedures she is contemplating.  And yet another Internet option available to Margie is the opportunity to solicit advice with regard to whatever medical problems she might have.

Another positive feature of Adminicare clinic is its ability to handle most medical emergencies thanks to its adjoining heliport and the regional life-saving teams who are always on duty to transport life-threatening cases to a fully-equipped hospital.

On the negative side, Margie is well aware of its limitations.  Although the chain of Adminicare’s clinics and hospitals provides a wide-enough array of services to handle ordinary medical conditions, more exotic modalities are not provided for.  Margie can vividly recall Adminicare’s denial of a breathing machine and other heroic measures that might have prolonged her terminally-ill father’s life.  An even more bitter memory is the death of her preemie granddaughter whose life might well have been saved had extended life support been on Adminicare’s barebones list of available measures.  Despite these personal losses,  Margie accepts the organization’s explanation that it must not only live within its means but  spend what means it has in a way most conducive to overall public health.

Margie is free, of course, to sidestep Adminicare and take advantage of whatever private-care services she can afford.  In fact, a healthy, low key competition exists between the two systems—the former desirous of pleasing its clientele as best it can within its budgetary constraints and the latter hopeful of attracting the most paying customers it can from the middle class. Professionals in both systems invest their personal pride in proving their approach superior.  Doctors who choose to work for Adminicare enjoy steady salaried jobs with regular hours and satisfying employment.  Merit is recognized and, for the more financially ambitious, it eventually leads to administrative positions or better-paid specialties.  The doctors who opt for the private side generally find it more lucrative but at the expense of longer and more irregular hours.

Although wealthy Helen Jones can well afford private medical care for herself and her family, she nonetheless makes use of her Adminicare clinic for such routine matters as vaccinations.  On her infrequent visits, she is treated the same as every other patient there being no bureaucratic means testing to distinguish her from any other patient.

However, Helen normally eschews Adminicare’s free services preferring instead to rely on the extensive private sector.  One reason is that she can count on retaining the same internist as her personal physician whenever she needs attention.  More importantly, she can be assured that whatever her medical problems, she will always be treated in accordance with the full range of advanced procedures medical science offers.  And, she freely admits being rich she simply prefers her doctor’s office more posh surroundings and deferential personnel neither of which, of course, comes cheaply.

In contrast with the other two women, Ellie is an enthusiastic fan of Adminicare.  She can get all the care she’s entitled to at no cost and do so with little time lost from her job—a convenience she particularly appreciates when compared to the hours-long wait she used to endure in the pre-Adminicare days.

Ellie does find one feature of the new system an annoyance but reluctantly concedes its value.  As is the case with every other Adminicare patient, her every doctor’s visit is graded by her attending physician based on his assessment of her degree of cooperation in improving her own health, the forthrightness of her medical history, and her compliance with previous orders.  A grade of “A,” signifies the doctor’s complete satisfaction with his patient’s attitude; an “F” an indication of his extreme displeasure.  These grades go beyond mere bookkeeping entries; they have teeth.  An “A,” for example, ensures getting an appointment with the least delay, spending the least time in the waiting room, being granted the best available hospital accommodations, and gaining first priority of rationed modalities and drug tests.  A failing grade of “F,” on the other hand guaranteed a reverse of these favors.  Needless to add, patients take their doctors’ orders seriously.

In her last visit, Ellie’s weight gain and mediocre physical condition prompted two prescriptions: one was for three-months of total dependence on food rations from a dietary provider and the second was an exercise regimen requiring her to walk twenty-minutes, five times a week.  As tempted as she might have been to slough off these challenges to her accustomed life style, she knew that she would be graded harshly if she did so.  Hence she “takes her medicine” and is rewarded by both an “A” grade and a more pleasing response from her mirror.

SHELTER

Living conditions are more a matter of general environment than of the commodiousness of individual units.  Unfortunately, this maxim was turned upside down by big-government redevelopment projects in the older cities in which tens of thousands of new, well-equipped apartments were erected on perfectly abominable urbanized tracts only to be forced to tear them down not many years hence.

Needless to add, the maxim is faithfully adhered to in the new cities.  In them, all residential neighborhoods, including the very poorest, share a number of common characteristics.  Their boundaries are clearly demarked by gateposts, low walls, landscaping, tasteful signage, and other prominent features.  Access to the areas is restricted to two entry/exit ways and through traffic inhibited by convoluted street patterns.  Walks and bike paths connect pocket parks and playgrounds.  Space is provided for recreation, picnics, and the appreciation of the outdoors.  Schools, churches, , and small shops are informally situated throughout the areas. Industry, warehouses, depots, trailer parks, and big-box stores, are excluded.

Distinctive facilities within poorer neighborhoods are likely to include developments of economical micro-apartments that offer single people and childless couples low rental, clean, modern facilities in a minimum of space.  Other features normally available are communal gardens, volunteer-operated childcare centers, and counseling services.

In every neighborhood, a government-built center provides a variety of meeting rooms that can be reserved at low rates for a variety of activities including religious programs, scouting, private clubs, and addiction help groups.  Each center is under the control of its neighborhood organization that appoints a full-time superintendent whose chief  responsibility is ensuring that the building serve its intended purpose—that is to say, every occupant contribute to improving the moral fiber of the community.  To satisfy the superintendent of its intentions, every renter applicant must sign and live up to a pledge that commits it to focus on the self-improvement of its membership  as opposed to the furtherance of the organization itself.  Hence religious groups meeting for no purpose other than holding prayer meetings and passing collection plates would not qualify under this restriction nor would a private group devoted exclusively to social events.

Each residential neighborhood has a full-time manager—usually an unpaid,  volunteer retiree—who communicates with the city’s departments regarding garbage collection, ground maintenance, and code enforcement—the last made easier by the fact that all land is publicly owned.  Somewhat surprisingly, general order is maintained by the neighborhood’s street gang under the loose supervision of the local police.  Gang members are compensated by additions to their Youth Stipend.  Rivalry between different neighborhood gangs is diverted to sporting events.

Thus living conditions for the poor, while not sumptuous, are entirely livable and affordable for most.  Whereas there are no governmental housing subsidies, charitable organizations standby to provide the deserving poor the help needed to tide them over temporary difficulties.

EMPLOYMENT

Company employment centers are often situated at the convergence of the outside corners of low-income neighborhoods so as to be within walking distance of large numbers of young people.  For rather than limit their recruitment to working age adults, they begin the process with local teenagers by sponsoring entrepreneurial clubs, taking field trips to company offices and factories, mentoring interested kids with one-on-one discussions, offering summertime internships, and, for the most promising, handing out university scholarships.  In competition with other firms to enlist the best kids, company officers give pep talks, hold receptions, and personally interview likely youngsters in ways reminiscent of rush week on college campuses.

The impact of these company centers extends beyond the number of youngsters who directly participate in them.  Kids, obviously on a company’s fast track, become role models for others.  Thus entire generations grow up aware of the company standards that must be met to get ahead in the business world: dependability, honesty, cooperativeness, and deportment.

CONCLUSION

We can get rid of poverty and spend less money doing it than is being spent now maintaining it—a bargain, I believe, worth pursuing by all concerned.

 

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Comments

One Response to “Eradicating Poverty, Part 3”
  1. sckurtin@gmail.com says:

    Poverty– Judging by your essay, there is no short fix to poverty. The ideas presented require intensive care, likely taking generations to conquer. My short take– poverty has more to do with ‘over population’… how do you tell people to keep their pants up?

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