Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It Is Time For New Thinking About Poverty


in·san·i·ty  \ in-ˈsa-nə-tē \

- Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That is not the actual definition of insanity but it is a time tested understanding in our culture. If you hit you head on a brick wall and it hurts and you do it ten more times to see if it keeps hurting, that might be a sign of insanity.

I was reminded of this today by an item in Facebook's trending stories that linked to this article: Report: Inequality remains 50 years after Kerner Report. The Kerner Report was the result of the Kerner Commission which originally carried the unwieldy name The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and was organized in response to race riots. The article being passed around contains a lot of unsurprising statements:
Barriers to equality are posing threats to democracy in the U.S. as the country remains segregated along racial lines and child poverty worsens, says a study examining the nation 50 years after the release of the landmark 1968 Kerner Report.
The new report released Tuesday blames U.S. policymakers and elected officials, saying they're not doing enough to heed the warning on deepening poverty and inequality as highlighted by the Kerner Commission a half-century ago, and it lists a number of areas where the country has seen "a lack of or reversal of progress."
"Racial and ethnic inequality is growing worse. We're resegregating our housing and schools again," former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, a co-editor of the new report and last surviving member of the original Kerner Commission created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "There are far more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse."
And so on. The report is long on bemoaning things like schools re-segregating, black homeownership getting worse, income inequality, etc. The "solutions" demanded by the report are about what anyone paying attention would expect:
The new report calls on the federal government and states to push for more spending on early childhood education and a $15 minimum wage by 2024. It also demands more regulatory oversight over mortgage leaders to prevent predatory lending, community policing that works with nonprofits in minority neighborhoods and more job training programs in an era of automation and emerging technologies.
More spending, more regulations, more sweetheart deals to "nonprofits" to keep "community organizers" employed and of course the ubiquitous $15 minimum wage, a favorite of people with no clue how economics and businesses work. I posted a slightly different take on Facebook:
So maybe the lesson here after half a century is that the solutions that we have tried: income redistribution, forced desegregation, affirmative action, etc. have not worked so instead of doubling down on policies that failed and in many ways made things worse, we should look for different solutions?
We have tried spending trillions in alleged anti-poverty measures and income redistribution and mostly succeeded in cementing generational poverty. We tried forced desegregation and people just keep fleeing urban areas entirely, meaning that blacks and whites just don't seem to attend the same schools. We are drowning in diversity officers and multicultural centers and anti-racism programs and the only people who seem to benefit are those that have learned to game the system for their own advancement. We give people funds that they can use as conveniently as possible to buy food and 20% of their purchases go to pop and salty snacks with soft drinks the largest single category of spending for food stamps, at the same time that obesity and obesity related diseases like diabetes are epidemic among the poor.

It is pretty clear that half a century of fighting poverty and racism, real and imagined, in the way "progressives" have demanded has not only wasted a lot of money and not worked, it has actually made things worse. Maybe we can try something different?

  • With almost 3/4 of black births to unwed mothers, maybe we should stop subsidizing behaviors that lead to unwed motherhood and stop providing incentives to poor decision-making?
  • Instead of pouring money into four year degrees that don't provide any job skills and saddle students with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt while enriching universities, we instead focus on vocational schools? Learning a trade will move people out of poverty, sinking them in debt to get a degree in Intersectional Queer Theory won't and just makes them dumber.
  • Maybe structure food and other aid programs to reward people for transitioning from dependency to work instead of punishing them for trying to better themselves and giving them incentives for destructive behavior?
You get the idea. I don't pretend to have all of the solutions but I do know what has not worked and it is the exact sort of stuff we keep being harangued about: arbitrarily raising the minimum wage, more bureaucratic oversight over every aspect of our lives, spending even more money on an education system that already consumes an enormous amount of money and is giving us a worse result from year to year. The very people who clamor the loudest about these issues are also the ones who are the most dug in when it comes to opposing new ideas. Just look at the response to President Trump suggesting replacing a part of the EBT/food stamps benefit with prepackaged nutritional foods. You would have thought he was suggesting we force feed poor kids drain cleaner.

After half a century of trying it the "progressive" way, it is time to admit that it didn't work and give some actual new ideas a chance. Doing the same thing we have been doing is guaranteed to do one thing, give us more of the same and this country can't afford that any longer.


Jim Swindle said...

Very good thoughts. Many college and university courses are useless or worse than useless. I say that as someone who has both a Bachelor's and a Master's. The funniest course title I've seen was a continuing education course about 25 years ago, "Manhole Covers as an Art Form." However, I'll confess that since reading that course title, I've paid more attention to manhole covers.

Arthur Sido said...

Jim, I can say quite honestly I learned more useful stuff in my Vocational Agriculture classes in high school than I did in four years of undergrad work.