There will be poor always

The middle class is disappearing by getting richer. Only 9% of American families had an inflation adjusted income of more than $75,000.00 back in 1967. Today 27% do. The average American family’s net worth (assets minus liabilities) is more than $100,000.00, according too Census Bureau figures. The median American household income is over $54,000.00. We have come a long way.

But the poor just stay poor. People with inflation adjusted incomes of less than $5000 make up 2.5-3.5% of the population. It doesn't change much in good times or bad. These guys essentially don't work at all. Many people lack money and pass through poverty. Others stay there. They behave in ways that prevent them from becoming successful - a culture of poverty.

Neither liberals nor conservatives have much incentive to address the culture of poverty.

The liberals threw money at the problem with disappointing results. President Johnson declared war on poverty. Poverty won and got even more spiteful. Great Society style programs concentrated the poor. One naer-do-well family in a functional community is a nuisance. Crowding them together creates a self-perpetuating menace where nasty habits are exacerbated like a strengthening virus as they pass around the community. Gangs replace families; illegitimate births become common and crime is everybody's part time job.

Conservatives think it is the fault of the poor themselves and they should just stop it. This is true, but not useful because left to their own devices the culturally poor can't escape poverty. They don't know how and they are not even sure they should. They need help and maybe government programs to get them out. The problem is that they don't need the kinds of government programs they have been getting.

Government is like a bad parent who both spoils and neglects its children. What can be done?

The first step is to acknowledge the problem and to understand that it is not primarily economic. Next we need to recognize that nobody but the poor themselves can extricate them from their circumstances, but that they cannot do it alone. Finally we have to admit that many of the poor do not want to change the behaviors that keep them poor. Like alcoholics who prefer to drink and blame others, they slip into hopelessness and complacency. The culturally poor are figuratively and literally immobile.

Sometimes an external shock cracks this immobility. Katrina was a cruel shock, but it may have contained a lesson. It broke up dysfunctional communities and may have provided the kick start some needed to find jobs and a better life in a better place. The government side of the equation was the travel money, temporary subsistence and loans.

Maybe that is how government should help. Programs that encourage the poor to stay in their dysfunctional communities don't work. Most government programs have that effect, even if it was not their design. Other Americans move. Immigrants come and go, but the permanent poor abide, which is one reason they are permanently poor.

Why not make the poor mobile. Don't tie their benefits to places and don't concentrate them. What can the poor learn from each other? They already know how to hang around. Sometimes the solution is just to get out of town.

So let's work to solve this problem, if it can be solved. Maybe there will be poor always, but let's give them and ourselves a chance.

Posted by Jack at December 23, 2005 11:33 PM