Blogs > Liberty and Power > They Just Got Poor?

Sep 21, 2005 10:38 am


They Just Got Poor?



To hear some people tell it, you'd think the New Orleans residents hit hardest by Katrina were well-off until January 20, 2001, when George W. Bush took office; then they were suddenly plunged into poverty. The indictment of Bush isn't that he short-changed the welfare state and the poor, but that he continued its perverse programs, which were never intended to create prosperity and independence. The "war on poverty" has actually been spectacularly successful at achieving its real goals: dependence on government.

Poverty is largely a combination of corrupting government handouts and corruptible individuals. People work their way out of poverty all the time, refusing to be seduced by government. Others are happy to not have to exert themselves. The difference lies in the personal makeup of a given individual. Even bad parents and a lousy education cannot explain it. And this has nothing to do with race. See Appalachia.

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Sheldon Richman - 9/25/2005

I don't underestimate the power and influence of the family at all. Knowledge of such is one of the main pillars of the critique of the welfare state, which erodes the institution of the family. But I do note that some people manage to overcome bad families and move out of poverty.


Charles N. Steele - 9/25/2005

"Strength" of course refers to having been endowed with sufficient quantities of those characteristics by which one overcomes poverty. Ceteris paribus, one's endowment (I suppose it is genetic but my argument doesn't depend on this) will be greatly enhanced by what one learns from one's environment, and particularly one's family. To fail to recognize this, as you seem to, is to miss a primary mechanism by which poverty is perpetuated.

It makes a difference. Poverty is not just a matter of the poor being lazy and corrupt. It's a matter of having learned the wrong skills, because of the incentives. We know at least a little about teaching new skills and changing incentives. We know nothing about overcoming corruption and laziness.


Sheldon Richman - 9/23/2005

Of course, I never said "all." I said "largely." We can quibble over which word indicating less than all is most appropriate. The point is that there are people in poverty who would not be if they chose to do something about it. Perhaps they don't want to do anything about it. The best way to separate those responsible for their poverty from those not responsible is to repeal the welfare state.


Sheldon Richman - 9/22/2005

Some kids are born into extremely disadvantageous circumstances but manage to overcome them. How do they do it? "Strength" is too vague an explanation. Strong how? Of course, the circumstances should be made less formidible by abolishing government schooling and other destructive intrusions, and freeing private organizations to handle all charitable activities, with all donations voluntary. Historically, such organizations stressed character-building in their efforts, and feared what government bureaucracy would mean for this aspect of things. Privatization would make it possible for "weaker" kids to overcome.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/22/2005

My question for Jonathan now is "Okay, if there is poverty in the absence of a welfare state WHOSE fault is it then that they are poor, if it is not theirs?"

My problem with the whole way this is framed is that it seems to assume that poverty is someone's "fault."


Mine, too. I was summarizing -- with an eye to reductio -- Mr. Richman, not articulating my own beliefs. I would think that anti-communists (who are so well-represented on this blog) would be kinder towards the welfare state, seeing as it was, in no small part, an attempt to forestall more radical demands (or more successful organizing) by leftist elements.


Charles N. Steele - 9/22/2005

Sheldon states: "Poverty is largely a combination of corrupting government handouts and corruptible individuals. People work their way out of poverty all the time, refusing to be seduced by government. Others are happy to not have to exert themselves. The difference lies in the personal makeup of a given individual. Even bad parents and a lousy education cannot explain it."

I disagree. A child born to a single mother who is unemployed and didn't complete high school will have far worse prospects than one who is born into a stable family headed by a well-educated, hardworking, reasonably well-off couple, ceteris paribus -- if for no other reason than that the latter child has far more opportunity to learn how to live successfully.

There's no doubt that welfare perpetuates poverty by subsidizing failure, but the mechanism through which is does is far different from simply "corrupting government handouts and corruptible individuals." It helps generate a vicious cycle of bad human capital being passed from generation to generation, one that only the very strongest can break free from on their own.


William J. Stepp - 9/22/2005

It was none other than the late Michael Harrington, the socialist whose book _The Other America_ was one of the catalysts of the War on Poverty, who said that in the United States poverty is more a state of mind than an actually existing condition. This is especially the case if you compare the poorest Americans to the poorest people in really poor places, such as the most impoverished African countries.

David Friedman once pointed out that there are better cars in the projects than there are public schools. His remark speaks volumes. He was pointing out that the private economy is better at providing for the material wants of the poor than the public state is.

Lysander Spooner wrote a tract called "Poverty: Its Illegal Cause and Legal Cure." His diagnosis and prescription were both wrong, as he was a lousy economist, but I've always thought his title, reworked a bit, would be a good one for a libertarian critique of the welfare state.

The welfare state institutionalizes poverty by degrading the incentive to work and to do the things that make a prospective employee attractive to an employer, like learning to show up on time and to take responsibility for one's actions. It also degrades the incentive to get a good education, which generally isn't available from the public schools that the poor are herded into, particularly in large cities. Education is the best ticket out of the "ghettos," but all too often the schools near these are little better than the projects themselves, despite, or rather because of, the miles of long green that are thrown at them. They are also quasi-political institutions, which are dominated by the corrupt teachers' unions and the NEA, more state-mollycoddled organizations.


Steven Horwitz - 9/21/2005

Let me first state clearly that I don't agree with the statement that "in the absence of a welfare state, all poverty is the fault of the poor." But more on that momentarily.

My question for Jonathan now is "Okay, if there is poverty in the absence of a welfare state WHOSE fault is it then that they are poor, if it is not theirs?"

My problem with the whole way this is framed is that it seems to assume that poverty is someone's "fault." With or without a welfare state, people are poor for a variety of reasons - and *someone* has to be at the lowest end of a ranking of incomes. If we are talking about "absolute" poverty, then here too, there are a variety of explanations. The fact that the vast majority of pre-industrial Europeans were quite poor was hardly their "fault."

And yes, I would agree that various forms of government intervention, including but not limited to the welfare state, are a primary cause of poverty in the US. It's a counterfactual, but if these interventions were ended, I do believe that the poorest among us would be notably better off on average. Of course, some would still be in poverty, and often due to circumstances beyond their control or their fault (see: Katrina). But that doesn't mean the welfare state is the appropriate solution.


Anthony Gregory - 9/21/2005

No way! The welfare state is not "liberal" at all. It is a conservative, rightwing program.

After all, Sheldon Richman is blaming Bush for continuing the welfare state. Sheldon has also attacked anti-freedom conservatism in this great article.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/21/2005

In the absence of a welfare state, all poverty is the fault of the poor. In the presence of a welfare state, all poverty is the fault of the poor and the liberals.