Poverty is an issue Leftists badger the Right about incessantly. Poor people provide a convenient excuse for government control over your wallet. They need food, shelter, transportation, healthcare, and so on, and why shouldn’t these things be guaranteed by a friendly government? Why rely on the charity of individuals to do this, when it is possible that private charity will miss some people, that some of the poor will slip through the cracks and suffer? Only government can make this a mandate. Let us raise taxes, they say, or reduce funding for the warmongering military, to help our poor people! As one Leftist detractor explained, let’s do it for national pride, compassion, and empathy!
The buzzwords sound great, of course. But they are empty platitudes. You cannot eat compassion, nor will empathy put a roof over your head or supply you with good, inexpensive healthcare. And as we give government our money to do these things for us (or, rather, as it is taken from us), be advised that the bureaucrats and politicians will take their slice of the action. They are the middlemen, and naturally a middleman wants his share of the spoils.
Government inefficiencies aside, many of those who are supported by government anti-poverty programs are, essentially, lifers. They are mired in permanent poverty, never to escape. What percentage, exactly? Well, it’s difficult to tell. But those receiving government benefits in the 37-48 month category (the longest period I could find concrete stats for) stands at around 43% of those on government assistance.
In browsing around these statistics this morning, I came across a Huffington Post article that was using essentially the same data (they differed by a couple percentage points here and there, but were clearly using a similar source). Their conclusion was that a majority of people used welfare benefits of varying types for only short periods of time. This was technically true (after all, 43% is a minority). But nonetheless, we are not far from that magic 50% marker.
In any event, for our purposes 43% of welfare recipients will do. These are people who are essentially in a state of permanent poverty. There are probably some who are too proud to take government benefits for long, too, or who do not qualify for one reason or another. So the actual number of those in permanent poverty is probably somewhat higher than that number would indicate.
Thing is most of us, myself included, have probably experienced some form of temporary poverty. For me, this came during the dot-com bust in 2001, when getting work as a web developer was essentially impossible. This happened to a lot of my friends in the industry, too. Those were tough times for folks in my line of work. I took a job as a Costco stocker for a time. Some friends took various odd jobs, or moved back in with family.
When talking to friends, family, and some of my readers here at The Declination, I can safely say that most of us have experienced temporary poverty. When I was born, my father was broke and just barely struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table. But that, too, was temporary. My wife’s family came from Cuba with nothing but the clothes on their backs, all that Castro permitted them to take with them. But their poverty was temporary, also. My wife’s grandfather quickly landed a job (all physical labor, but that was enough) and he managed to claw his way out of poverty. Her father managed to prosper, working his way up from a minimum wage pharmacy worker job to part-owner in a lucrative pharmacy business.
What is the difference between those who fall into poverty, for whatever reason, and those who stay there?
There is a mindset I’ve seen with people who are stuck in permanent poverty. A family friend, who for sake of anonymity I will call Harry, exemplifies the permanent poverty situation quite well. Harry was a general contractor, and had a set of skills that ought to have made him permanently well off. But when he’d land a good contract, and score some hefty profit, he would quickly burn through money. Harry’s house would be filled with toys, from a new lifted F-150, to boats, RVs, motorcycles, whatever. And then, a year or two later, after going through several lean months, the possessions would disappear one at a time, sold or repossessed by the bank.
Feeling sorry for Harry, my father helped him score a job worth a substantial amount of money. Half was to be paid upfront, the remainder upon completion of the job. But Harry spent the advance too quickly, burning through it at the bars and the strip clubs, and found he did not have enough money leftover to buy all the supplies needed to finish the work. The broken contract cost him his contractor’s license, and he found himself out of work. Things continued to go downhill after that, and he spent several months in jail on some unrelated charge.
Harry has since been released, and is back working in construction, but now as a regular laborer. His lucrative career as a general contractor is gone forever. And even still, after all this, he quickly spends his money on booze, women, and toys, and finds himself in financial pickles. So far as I know, Harry has never taken a dime of welfare money, but he is still stuck in permanent poverty. And all the help my father and I could give him was for naught.
The thing is, you could give Harry a million dollars, and it would soon vanish. Just as you could give some folks on welfare piles of money, and in the long run it would do them no good. The money would not improve their lot, but if taken out of your paycheck, it could worsen your lot. That isn’t to say money can’t help a poor man at all. Those who are in temporary poverty may very well be helped by a timely infusion of cash, or some food, shelter, or otherwise.
Differentiating between the temporarily impoverished and the permanently impoverished is a mission we’ve largely outsourced to the government, and I consider that a mistake. The government is ill-equipped to do this. Some of the temporarily impoverished may be turned away, and many of the permanently impoverished may supplied with money and/or benefits that are, essentially, wasted. Take this story, confirmed by Snopes, of a man using his girlfriend’s EBT card to buy steak and lobster. He then resold the food for cash, 50% of the value of the original food. He was caught and arrested for fraud; for reselling the food and using someone else’s benefits. But this sort of thing goes on all the time. And sometimes the EBT benefits are sold more directly. And let us not forget the FEMA cards after Katrina, often being used for strip clubs and booze, not unlike what Harry did with his profits. Some got caught. I suspect many more got away with it.
The point is, some of these folks have a mindset that mires them in permanent poverty. Even given the food, they will sell the food at a discount and use it for something else. Given the welfare cash to pay bills, they will spend the money on something else. Give them millions, and they will soon be broke again. Such aid only truly improves the lot of the temporarily impoverished. And even then, I’ve never taken such benefits, even when temporarily impoverished, and neither have most folks I know. Most of the time, we can get out of temporary poverty with some bootstrapping and some assistance from family and friends.
How do you change the mindset of the permanently impoverished? I don’t know. What I do know is that if the purpose of government welfare spending is to lift them out of this state, it’s not going to work. It may help the temporarily impoverished, though I’d argue we could do that more efficiently via private means. But the permanently poor are going to stay that way, short of changing their mindset. I’ve spoken at length on the possibility that pain is a good teacher; that maybe making people too comfortable in poverty (the regularity and guarantee of government assistance) may work against learning the habits and mindset necessary to escape poverty. But Harry’s example is also instructive, he’s had every incentive in the world to change his behavior, and he never did. Some people may be beyond our help. It’s an unpleasant thing to contemplate, but it may nonetheless be true.
The question is, if some people are beyond our help, if lifting them out of poverty is beyond our means, what is our responsibility to them? Do we owe the government an ever-increasing slice of our earnings to fail to help them? Where does our obligation end? To those in power, of course, middlemen taking their slice of the action, the answer is that the obligation never ends, and is an essentially unlimited mandate.