How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.

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