The Poverty Hoax

A major concern of progressives is their supposed interest in the fate of the poor.  They purport to be the champions of the poor.  But the truth is that they need the poor more than the poor need them, in a symbiotic relationship.  As much as 75% of the money allocated to the poor is consumed by the vast bureaucracies that administer this aid.  These agencies are actually job programs for college graduates who would often find it difficult to find employment in the private sector.  The late William Raspberry wrote a column dealing with Gina, a 14 year old living in a group home, who had a caseworker, a psychotherapist and a court appointed lawyer.  These caregivers have to be supported by a number of clerical workers and supervisors who compose the vast helping bureaucracy.  If the "poor" were suddenly to disappear they would have to redefine their definition of poverty in order to maintain their sinecures.  And that is exactly what they have done.

Advocates for the poor do not ordinarily live by what they preach.  The President has informed us that, “We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times.”  Yet during a recent trip to China the first family and their staff of about 70 stayed in the presidential suite at the Westin Chaoyang Hotel, which USA Today reports costs about $8,400 a night.  Clearly the elite live by a different standard and have for a long time.  Communist defector Victor Kravchenko recalled that during the famine in the Soviet Union, “I found myself among men who could eat ample and dainty food in full view of starving people not only with a clear conscience but with a feeling of righteousness, as if they were performing a duty to history.”

What is poverty?  The late political scientist Edward Banfield provided four degrees of poverty: destitution, which is lack of income sufficient to assure physical survival and to prevent suffering from hunger, exposure, or remediable or preventable illness; want, which is lack of enough income to support essential welfare; hardship, which is lack of enough to prevent acute persistent discomfort or inconvenience. To this he added a fourth: relative deprivation which is a lack of enough income, status, or whatever else may be valued to prevent one from feeling poor in comparison to others.  This last category is elastic enough to include millionaires who covet the possessions and power of billionaires.  One important category of poverty Banfield does not mention is psychological or spiritual poverty.  This is the most significant form of poverty in an affluent society when physical needs are easily met.

 Where do America's "poor" stand in this scale of poverty?  In a nation of over 300 million people there are undoubtedly cases of destitution, want and hardship.  However, these cases appear to be the exception.  As former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman stated, "More people die in the United States of too much food than of too little."  According to William Bennett, "Poor people in America have a higher standard of living than middle-class Americans of previous generations."  According to the Heritage Foundation, 80% of poor households have air conditioning.  Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31% have two or more.  Two-thirds of poor households have cable or satellite TV with 18% having a big screen television.  And .6% of poor households own a Jacuzzi.  The Los Angeles Times reported the California's "poor" spent $69 million using their welfare payments on at least 14 cruise ships sailing from Miami and other ports, at Disney World, in Hawaii and Guam and at hotels in Las Vegas.  Many of the "poor" enjoy luxuries that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt would envy.  Heather MacDonald claimed in 2000 that New York City spent $790 million on the homeless, or $39,500 per person.  According to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation the U.S. has spent over $20.7 trillion on means-tested welfare since the beginning of the War on Poverty.

 The failure to eliminate "poverty" is a result of the faulty assumptions made about the poor.  Many believe that the poor are "just like us" except for the fact that they do not have money.  Even such an astute observer as George Orwell believed that providing material support for the poor would improve their behavior.  "Give people a decent house and they will soon learn to keep it decent.  Moreover, with a smart-looking house to live up to, they improve in self-respect and cleanliness, and their children start life with better chances."  It has become obvious that this is not the case.  The "poor" have a different set of values condemning them to poverty regardless of how much money is lavished on them.  A professional athlete may make $300 million during his career and yet retire in poverty.  As Banfield has stated, "the capacity of the radically improvident to waste money is almost unlimited."

 This brings us to the last form of poverty: psychological or spiritual poverty.  Mother Teresa commented at Harvard, “America is not a rich country.  America is a desperately spiritually poor country.”  This “spiritual” poverty hits the poor particularly hard.   Vladimir Bukovsky noted this upon his arrival in the United States.  Having been born and raised in “genuine” poverty he noted that he, “detected everywhere the spirit of ostentatious defiance.  The worse it looks, the better, because society is to blame.”  American poor made a concerted effort to exhibit their poverty.  Advocate for the poor complain that there are "food deserts" in the inner cities.  It might also be noted that these areas suffer from being “hardware store deserts.”  Yet there is no shortage of nail salons and liquor stores in these neighborhoods.  The market determines what people are interested in buying. Tennis shoes, costing several hundred dollars, a pair are not marketed to middle class youth.  The target market is inner city youth.

Myron Magnet tells the story of author Amy Tan’s sister and brother-in-law who arrived from China in 1983.  After only four years in America, they owned a car, three televisions and a house.  They also had two children in college.  They accomplished this all with dead-end jobs: he washed dishes and she helped manage a takeout restaurant. Reporter Jacob A. Riis described the attitude of Jewish immigrants early in the 20th century: “The poorest Hebrew knows – the poorer he is, the better he knows it – that knowledge is power, and power as the means of getting on in the world that has spurned him so long, is what his soul yearns for.  He lets no opportunity slip to obtain it.  Day- and night-schools are crowded with his children, who learn rapidly and with ease.  Every synagogue, every second rear tenement or dark back-yard, has its school and its school master, with his scourge to intercept those who might otherwise escape.”  According to Magnet, the successes of present day Asian immigrants “contains an implicit reproach” to the indigenous poor.  Many arrive with little capital and a poor command of the language, but through hard work become successful.

 Innumerable studies have been conducted on poverty's causes and cures.  Perhaps the assertion of President Franklin Roosevelt says it best: “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.  To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”  Certainly progressive academics are aware of the consequences of their policies.  Perhaps that is their ultimate goal.

John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, Algora Publishing, 2013.