2008 September 10

     The United States has fought three major, recent wars. We had the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, and the War in Iraq. Of those three, the two least embarrassing were in Vietnam and Iraq. So let's start with the War on Poverty including Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

     "When reforms finally do occur, they will happen not because stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding ourselves." From Charles Murray, Losing Ground, American Social Policy 1950-1980, BasicBooks, 1984, ISBN 0-465-04233-3. This was the last sentence of a 236-page summary of a lot of social programs and how each has aggravated the condition it was supposed to alleviate. Our country taxed productive income, subsidized unproductive poverty, and wondered why its economy went down the tubes.

     I was asked if every program was a failure in every way. "Is it bad to buy a kid breakfast?" I would hope the bar would be higher than that for government programs funded by taxation. I think it's terrible to buy a kid breakfast when you don't know how many people missed their meals to pay for it. The threshold for acceptance of an anti-povery program should include some basics:

• It makes poor people less poor.
• It helps recipients more than it hurts donors.
• It encourages behavior that reduces poverty.
• It discourages behavior that increases poverty.

• It doesn't matter whose self esteem it enhances.
• It doesn't matter whose guilt it assuages.

These are tests we haven't come close to passing.

     There's a whole middle-America segment that has vanished, and not in a good way. There were communities of modestly-paid people with secure jobs doing useful work for paying customers. These people owned small homes with comfortable mortgages they were able to pay after feeding and clothing their families. There wasn't a lot left over to pay for catastropic events like fires or medical emergencies and college wasn't an option for most of them. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution (1865-1965 in my counting) these families had children living better than their parents.

     I picture Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood where fathers worked in the textile factories and mothers stayed home with their families in row houses with neat gardens in front. Summer evenings found families outside sitting on the steps with kids playing in the streets. It wasn't an easy life, these people worked hard, and there wasn't much money left over after food, clothing, and shelter were paid for. Stability was the mainstay of a community like this because the loss of a job was a major financial crisis for a family with only two months of savings in the bank. People with major illnesses died uncomfortably at home.

     These middle-class neighborhoods had stability and family fortunes grew slowly and steadily from one generation to the next as productivity per worker grew in the factories. That comfort at the 30th percentile of income in America is gone.

     For a variety of reasons, these neighborhoods are gone. The transition of America from 80% blue collar, 15% white collar, and 5% unemployed to 30% blue collar, 30% white collar, and 40% with nothing to do was a painful one. (No, I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm probably close.) Amid other forces eating away at at them, I believe those neighborhoods were taxed out of existance to fund social programs to support those who didn't work.

     Some Americans are going to live better than others. That's true in the communist countries, that's true in the other western countries, and people are supposed to feel bad about it. America was founded with the deliberate notion that it's really okay for hard-working people to get rich. It's even okay for lucky people to get rich.

• We don't owe the poor a living.
• We don't owe the poor financial support.
• We don't owe the poor jobs.
• We don't owe the poor education.
• We don't owe the poor health care.

As a concerned citizen, I may choose to contribute to causes that give these things. (We all live better if we "pay forward" the debt we owe for the help we got when our families first got here.) As an American, you should be ashamed that you even think of forcing someone else to contribute to these things.

     We do owe the poor something, the same something we owe everybody in America.

• We should stay out of their way.
• We should give them their chance to succeed.

It is up to us to welcome those "moving up" the success ladder. More than other places, America has prided itself on embracing "new money" people amid the "old money" people. (Our snobs are less snooty than other countries' snobs.) This is true in our exclusive country clubs, but also in our middle-class society.

     We got out of Vietnam when we realized we were making that country worse off being there. We're figuring out that we should get out of Iraq because we're making that country worse off being there. We should get our government out of our poor neighborhoods because we're making those people worse off, too.




If you like what you read here (more of the battle), then here are my other American-issues essays.

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