Losing the war on poverty

Many of you know this, but some don’t: one of my tasks when I’m not working on this site is to contribute content to the Patriot Post. On Friday they ran a slightly edited version of something I wrote for them as a featured article. The purpose of today’s post is to expand on these remarks, which I rarely do for these assignments – maybe I should do so more often.


Income Redistribution: Losing the War on Poverty

It costs us nearly $1 trillion a year between federal and state entities, but the vast redistribution of wealth that is government’s preferred solution for equalizing outcomes is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s created two distinct but politically powerful groups: 1.) A permanent underclass comprising a vast group of indentured servants who pay little to nothing in taxes but who get just enough handed to them by the American sugar daddy to stave off rioting in the streets, and 2.) The government employees and contractors who hand out the largess.

Since the so-called “Great Society” was launched under President Lyndon Johnson, the poverty rate has fluctuated in a relatively narrow range between 10 and 15 percent. As a whole, Americans are far wealthier with more material goods than they were at the start of Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” but those at the lower end of the income scale are still deemed to be in need of assistance by those who believe they know best. According to a recent Cato Institute study, government spending on poverty programs now amounts to nearly $20,000 per person. This means that, on the average, a “poor” family of four benefited from almost $80,000 in government spending last year — certainly enough to qualify as a middle-class income if it were earned.

Of course, America’s poor aren’t living in a manner one generally envisions as indicative of a middle-class income. The various forms of welfare that federal and state governments distribute pass through many hands before finally reaching recipients. This creates a long list of those who like the programs and want to see them expanded. And since Barack Obama has turned many millions of Americans into government dependents, making any sort of meaningful cut will be a politically dicey prospect should Mitt Romney win this November.


I try to keep these under 300 words or so given that I have to share space with many others who also lend their talents to this internet publication. But here I can write as many words as I wish.

What floored me was the vast waste cited in the Cato study. Yes, I realize it’s a libertarian-leaning organization and their method of coming up with this figure was simply adding up all the spending they considered “welfare” and dividing it by the number of people the government says live beneath the poverty line. So they probably fudged the figures to some extent, but I would hazard a guess that when all is added up it can be legitimately be claimed the federal and state governments still spend our median household income of roughly $50,000 per household on those who are poor. But they don’t receive $50,000 worth of benefits, do they?

There have always been people who live in poverty and squalor, although squalor as defined in our country might be a godsend to those living in the most wretched farflung corners of the world. This is why we have so many immigrants (legal and illegal) coming here, as America is still thought of as the land of opportunity. The question has become what opportunities are out there.

Yet those in the generation of our grandfathers who were considered poor were also ones who worked hard. Take as an example the Eastern Shore, which for generations has depended on two key sources of income: agriculture, including the growing and processing of chickens, and seafood, most generally crabs, oysters, and the like. A half-century ago most worked in those industries, with a few of the more affluent and industrious creating a merchant class to service the needs of these workers who needed to buy groceries, clothing, or other basic material goods. I’m guessing you didn’t have a whole lot of slackers and layabouts around here.

Over the last thirty years things have changed. Sure, the local economy still runs on the bounties of the land and the Bay, but now those who became affluent in the large cities come here to either spend their vacation time or to retire. So we have a third key industry many have become dependent on locally, but it’s perhaps the least reliable one because people need disposable income with which to enjoy their leisure. If they don’t have the money, we on the Shore go back to life circa 1962. The problem is that the work ethic which used to permeate the Shore (and most of the rest of America, for that matter) seems to have declined as people became accustomed to a modern lifestyle. It’s been aided by the welfare state.

We all know that if welfare went away tomorrow there would be rioting in the streets. But the question is whether the riots would be led by those who were suddenly left without their monthly checks and food stamps or by those government workers who unexpectedly find themselves without a job. Based on what we saw in Wisconsin my money (what little I have) is on the latter. I know charities would work hard to find a way to fill in the gaps for the truly poor if welfare disappeared, but it seems that, once established, government programs go on forever.

Maybe the problem with poverty is that we consider it a problem to be solved. The most charitable among us have always stopped to help those who cannot help themselves, but once the concept was created that government would step in and make it all better, the number who gave of themselves dwindled. It was now someone else’s mess to take care of, and the idea of poor but too proud to accept government-sponsored relief faded into obscurity. Instead, we now openly advertise for more food stamp recipients like they’re just another consumer commodity. We’ve gone from having to stand in line to get voucher coupons to spend at the store to having just another card to swipe because it reduces the “stigma” of being on the dole.

I believe we as a nation are approaching the crossroads. Either we cut back and restore ourselves to greatness or we follow in the footsteps of long-lost empires like Rome or ancient Greece. It pains me to say this, but in 2012 America it really is no more than bread and circuses. Sadly, it may not be up to us to change that but we have to at least try.

By the way, I have some ideas to address this. Watch this space and the monoblogue Facebook page (which you really should ‘like’) for more on that project.