November 15, 2018

Poverty Gets Personal

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” – Ronald Reagan

“Poverty is a ‘personality defect.’” – Margaret Thatcher

The Gipper was referring to LBJ and his Great Society, but he got it wrong: the Great Society failed to eliminate poverty because it never got all the way to dealing with it. Instead it took a more politically acceptable path focused on education and community involvement — not bad things, but there’s a difference. As for the Iron Lady, there’s actually some truth in what she said (we’ll look at that in a moment), but I suspect not in the way she probably meant it. She was more likely voicing the common attitude that the poor are intellectually impaired, morally flawed, prone to bad lifestyle choices, and criminally inclined, and therefore worthy of only the most grudging kind of help. That attitude and the Great Society’s reputed loss[1] in its War on Poverty explain a lot about today’s prevailing approach to poverty relief.

Rutger Bregman tackles this tough subject in his book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017):

A world without poverty— it might be the oldest utopia around. But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?

He continues with more tough questions:

What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges [toward self-help and away from government assistance] only make the situation worse?

He then profiles the work of Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, and Sendhill Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, who formulated a theory of poverty based on the concept of “scarcity mentality.” Their research shows that the chronic poor are really good at scrambling after short term solutions, but tend to be inept at sustainable long-term thinking. It’s a matter of mental bandwidth: today’s urgency gets all the attention, leaving other matters to go begging (sometimes literally). In fact, their research estimates that poverty costs a person about 13-14 IQ points. In other words, living in a chronic state of being poor can eventually rewire the human brain to the point where clear thinking and prudent behavior are challenged.

Hence the grain of truth in Margaret Thatcher’s comment.

One problem with that attitude, though, is that it uses the terms “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably. But not everyone who’s poor is also impoverished. At the simplest level, the poor are poor because they lack money. But poverty goes further: it’s a chronic condition that generates a specific outlook and way of approaching life. When that condition is shared, it becomes a culture. You know it when you’re around poverty; you might not know it when you’re around poor.

Government assistance programs don’t make that distinction. As a result, as Bregman states, social welfare has “devolved into a behemoth of control and humiliation.”

An army of social services workers is needed to guide people through the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures. . . . The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame.

Is it really that bad? Try applying for food stamps sometime.

Our bank account was thin after a business failure and some health issues. Following the advice of family, my wife applied for food stamps. Her experience was everything Bregman describes. Case in point: after two mandatory daylong job search classes (how to write a resume, set up a LinkedIn page, use the internet to check out online job postings…), she had to prove her willingness to work by reporting for 8 hours per week of wall-washing duty at a church community center. She washed the same walls every week — the same walls that other people were also washing every week — the cleanest walls in Denver. Washing walls — pointlessly, needlessly, endlessly — to prove you’re not a slacker.

Help with the grocery bill was bittersweet for a couple months, then we opted out. It’s easy to intellectualize and debate about “all the information and education” and “the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures.” It’s not so easy when they get personal. We were poor but not impoverished, and the system was just too demoralizing to continue. Maybe that was the point.

Plus, earning money reduces or eliminates benefits — a result which economist Guy Standing calculates is equivalent to the imposition of an 80% tax. The quandary is obvious: earn money or opt out of the system— either way, you pay the tax. Most people — even the cognitively-impaired — wouldn’t agree to a deal like that.

How did “Brother, can you spare a dime?” turn into this? Curiously, the current welfare system derived from the same post-WWII economic surge that rewarded working people. We’ll look at how that happened next week. In the meantime, have a listen:

This week’s post uses portions of a LinkedIn Pulse article I wrote last year about poverty, crime, and homelessness. Next week’s post will also tap that source. You might like to jump ahead and read the article: Why Don’t We Just solve Some Problems For a Change?


[1] Not everyone agrees that we lost the War on Poverty. See this article that considers both sides.

 

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

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