Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The endless war on poverty

 Anne Kim of the Washington Monthly:
In a report titled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox,” [the Heritage Foundation] argues that “the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.” and that while “[p]oor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, … in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table.” 
It’s certainly true that poverty today does not look like the poverty Harrington chronicled in the 1960s. But neither does typical “middle-class” life. In 1960, nearly 1 in 5 American homes lacked complete plumbing, and 1 in 10 homes had no flush toilet. More than 1 in 5 homes also had no telephone - unthinkable today. 
While the absurdity of the Heritage Foundation’s line of argument is easy for policy elitists to dismiss (poverty is relative, not absolute, hello? [my emphasis]), this argument still gets traction with the American public in ways that are ultimately very damaging to modern efforts to restarting a war on poverty.
What a stunning admission. If "policy elitists" are defining poverty in relative rather than absolute terms, then the war on poverty is a completely futile enterprise given that some people will always be living in poverty compared to others.  If we are fighting a war that cannot be won, then isn't surrender -- i.e. the scrapping of government programs tasked with poverty elimination -- the logical course?

Let's remember the words of President Lyndon Johnson when he called for the war on poverty's enactment:
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort...Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.
Johnson's language and word choice clearly indicates that he saw the elimination of poverty as the ultimate goal of his legislative agenda. Now, however, the left is both moving goal posts and ensuring that the bureaucratic apparatus tasked with poverty alleviation will never be out of a job. They are engaged in the ultimate forever war.

An intellectually honest approach to government-run efforts at poverty alleviation would take one of two approaches:
  1. Define poverty in absolute terms, such as access to food, housing, clothing and education, and strive for its elimination. 
  2. Openly acknowledge to taxpayers that the war on poverty is not simply designed to ensure the provision of basic human needs, but will be a never-ending wealth transfer to some percentage of the population based on its relative standing. 
The war on poverty was sold to the American people based on the idea that it could be won and with the at least implied notion that it would put an end to images such as the ramshackle dwellings famously visiting by President Johnson in Appalachia:

If this is no longer the goal, the American people deserve to be explicitly told so and a national debate held over the wisdom of defining poverty in relative terms. Instead, we are treated to writers such as Kim simply taking relative poverty as a given (notably the Obama administration has gone about quietly changing how poverty is measured) and waving away evidence that the poor actually do not suffer from material deprivation.

Furthermore, given evidence that federal aid programs may actually be driving the persistence of poverty rather than reducing it, such a national debate should probably take place regardless.

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