Monday, January 13, 2014

The Poor Are Immoral

The Poor Are Immoral

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” (Anatole France, 1921 Nobel Prize winner for Literature.)

One of my routes home is, in fact, under a bridge underpass where between one and three desperately poor, filthy, miserable, and often soaked and freezing homeless men camp out.  One tries to keep his personal belongings in a couple of carts, but the others scatter garbage (and, occasionally, less attractive items) in “their” areas.   I have no idea what their experience with the law might be, but it’s safe to assume that if there are interactions, they might not be entirely gentle. 

Walk the streets of my city, an epicenter of some of the greatest wealth in the world, and you will see similar scenes—in parks, on the steps leading to churches, on benches, on the promenades that overlook the Hudson and East Rivers.  They are there--and they are the tip of the iceberg, because more than 50,000 people, over a third of them children, sleep in shelters every night.

The poor, of course, are not confined to cities.  50 years ago, LBJ launched his war on poverty with a trip to Appalachia, and the black and white images of shotgun shacks with no indoor plumbing, one room school houses, rusted trucks, and barefoot children still have emotional resonance.  Nor is rural and exurban poverty a thing of the past, or just something that comes with an accent.   A doctor friend who lives and works in upstate New York told me the other day is that the most visible evidence is her patient’s teeth.  They just can’t afford a dentist, and there is neither the money to attract dentists to come to the area, nor to support a free dental clinic. 

Who is to blame for all of this? Why even talk about blame when people are in need?  Because we live in a political world as well, where the greatest wealth and power, by far, is that possessed by the government. Government can regulate, and tax, and redistribute, and subsidize.  And, however coldly some of our electeds may divide up the spoils in private, in public they adopt the language of blame and immorality to justify their choices.  Barack Obama talks about the one percent and income inequality.  Republicans talk about freeloaders and free cellphones. 

These words are clearly emotional shorthand—a way to razz up the base.   By focusing on a caricature (the cigar-puffing plutocrat, the welfare queen) they dehumanize the issue.   They don’t provide an intellectual framework for any solutions—in fact they almost guarantee the status quo, as both sides hunker down and fight smaller skirmishes for small prizes that have mostly symbolic value.  The argument over extended unemployment insurance is an excellent example of that. 

That process tends to provide an emotional safe-haven for the vast majority of us.  We don’t have to think about ameliorating the plight of people sleeping under bridges and rotted teeth and kids who go hungry.  We can walk past them, as I do, when I take that route home. 

But most of us also know this emotional model is incomplete. We would prefer a binary, moral definition of wealth and poverty.  Politics attempts to provide that as a means to an end.  On the far Left, wealth (particularly excessive wealth when others are in need) is wrong and needs to be rectified by state action.  Charity becomes egalitarianism and egalitarianism becomes a justification for redistribution on a large scale.  On the far Right, unemployment and poverty is the genetic marker for immorality.  People don’t work because they have a character deficiency: they don’t want to work--they are strictly “takers” and the way to bring them to the path of righteousness is through tough love (and, if necessary, starvation.)

Most of us, however, are in neither camp.  We know that every person of wealth does not wake every day wondering which company they can buy up, loot the pension plan, close the plant, lay off the 1,000 workers, and cause the small company town it is located in to careen into decrepitude.  And we also know that most of the poor don’t get into their Escalades to drive to the store to buy junk food with their food stamps. But we don’t really know how fix it, and we have our own lives to live, so we content ourselves with worm-eaten chestnuts.  Detachment is safe, comfortable, and I have my children’s tuitions to pay.   

A friend sent me an article from Ethics written by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, “Equality as a Moral Ideal.”  In it Frankfurt rejects the idea of economic egalitarianism and economic equality as an ideal and embraces what he terms “the doctrine of sufficiency.”  “(W)ith respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough.”

Intuitively, that makes some sense, at least from a moral perspective, although in today’s political environment one would think that places Frankfurt far left. But Frankfurt expressly rejects an egalitarianism that ends in income equality, and goes to considerable length to debunk the opinions of others who are more sympathetic to that view. I may be paraphrasing somewhat here,  but Frankfurt wouldn’t take my kid’s college savings accounts in order to fund Universal Pre-K.

I found Frankfurt a very challenging read, so I asked my friend, a generous person and high achiever, what he saw as his moral obligation. “I don't think there's a moral duty to do anything other than deal with people in distress.”

Then I saw Tom Donlan’s “Poverty and Measurement” in this week’s Barron’s. To him, LBJ’s War of Poverty has been akin to General Westmoreland’s infamous “destroying the village in order to save it.” He says, “In 50 years of programs to reduce the pain of living in poverty, the U.S. paid too little attention to reconstructing the damage that poverty wreaks on character. The final struggle in the war on poverty must be to restore the balance between government support and individual earnings.”

Donlan, for all his astringent Calvinism, is right.  Transfer payments without a way out are the equivalent of opiates for someone with a broken leg.  They may dull the edge, but if you don’t reduce the fracture and put a cast on it, there’s not going to be a lot of walking going on. And without that way out, every act of personal charity my friend (and all of us) might make are drops of water in the ocean.  As are the “sufficiency” aspirations of Frankel.  We will never get to “enough.”

But Donlan’s pleasant poetry of character building for the poor through the application of more pain falls short as well.  We have a moral duty to stop bellying up to the bar ourselves and instead demand that our politicians, who run the biggest business in town by far, do the same.  You want people to be self-supporting? Stop demeaning them--or enabling them--and focus your energies on creating economic opportunity.

Both the President and several prominent Republicans have started talking about ways to address this, but they can best begin anew by discarding every comforting nostrum.  It’s not starving the poor or giving them more, it’s not further incentivizing the “job creators” or taxing them more, it is having a rational discussion—and political horse-trading is encouraged if that is what it take to get it done. Give people the chance to pull themselves out of poverty, and my bet is that you would find the “immorality” levels dropping rapidly in this country.

Can our politicians do this?  To return to Anatole France, “It is human nature to think wisely and to act in an absurd fashion.”

Perhaps that’s a maybe?

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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