On Poverty and Its Causes
You can give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. You can teach a man to fish and he will starve to death. There are no fish left in the damn lake.
A. Barton Hinkle wrote a very interesting piece titled Money Treats Poverty’s Symptoms, not Its Cause. Rather than quibbling with some of his factual details, I’ll grant the broad proposition that most of our spending on poverty attempts to alleviate the symptoms rather than attack the root of problem. I’m going to assume that Mr. Hinkle is makes this observation to imply that we should attack the root of the problem, even if this requires effort and (dare I mention) resources.
Mr. Hinkle leaves the questions I want to address open. Specifically: what causes poverty and what can be done about it? I’ll go over two common, but seriously-flawed hypotheses. Then I’ll talk a bit about what’s really going on.
Hypothesis 1: Dependency breeds complacency. If we slashed social programs, poor people would go out and get jobs.
The Problem: There aren’t enough jobs. Even if slashing programs would push more people into the labor market (which is a highly debatable proposition), it won’t create jobs for the new job seekers. If unemployment drops to 5 or 6% we can revisit this hypothesis.
Hypothesis 2: Poverty is cultural. A “culture of poverty” means that many people don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
The Problem: Even if we can get past the problem of this being the favorite talking point of the casual racist, this hypothesis is utterly useless. It doesn’t suggest a solution—it just shrugs and says it must be a culture thing.
It’s true that our opportunities have a whole lot to do what our families and communities teach, respect, and expect. A lot of people can’t just walk away from their parents’ mistakes. But these things don’t arise in a vaccuum. How and where we grew up have a lot to do with what we’re comfortable with, what we expect, and what we value. Identifying that poverty is about more than resource availability is a step in describing what poverty is—but it doesn’t explain what causes it.
Hypothesis 3: Poverty is a result of external pressures that we could do something about, if we chose to.
The if is the kicker. Because, frankly, it’s a lot less threatening to a lot of us to spend a few hundred billion on bandaids than to address the root problem. Are we comfortable with a financial system that siphons money from those without capital to those who own capital? Are we willing to expand access to scarce opportunities, even if that means we might lose out on some of them ourselves? Are we willing to put resources into restorative justice so people who may have done some awful things can have a decent chance at a future? Would we pay a bit more at a store to ensure the people who made whatever we’re consuming were decently paid? To take on powerful interests that make a lot of money taking advantage of vulnerable people? To spend what it takes to get public education right? To consider which parts of the war on drugs are doing more harm than good?1 To ensure that everybody who wants a job and is willing to work can have one? To provide people with opportunities, regardless of whether we feel they deserve them? To see our children grow up in a world without some of the hereditary privilege we enjoyed?
I hope the answer is yes. When Mr. Hinkle points out that a lot of our spending on poverty isn’t even designed to solve the problem, I hope he’s not suggesting we tear off the bandages and let the poor bleed. I hope he’s willing to actually do what it takes to solve the problem—even when that’s ideologically awkward.
And which parts are doing some good. I don’t want to throw a softball to the libertarians with this one. Because the war on drugs isn’t just about locking people up for having a joint. Some of that stuff is really, really bad for you. ↩