Bob Herbert on Poverty

Bob Herbert had an opinion piece in the New York Times last Friday lamenting the Obama administration’s lack of interest in the poor:

President Obama is redesigning his administration to make it even friendlier toward big business and the megabanks, which is to say the rich, who flourish no matter what is going on with the economy in this country… Meanwhile, we hear not a word — not so much as a peep — about the poor, whose ranks are spreading like a wildfire in a drought.

He goes on to point out that the poor have suffered more than anyone as a result of the recession and accuses both the Democrat and Republican parties of being completely unconcerned about it. He goes so far as to claim that “Our government officials, from the president on down, are too busy kissing the bejeweled fingers of the megarich.

I think there is a lot of value in Herbert highlighting the problem of poverty, although I think it is an exaggeration to suggest that politicians don’t care about the problem at all. I think that if you were to ask them, most politicians on both sides would express concern about the poor, and I’m willing to believe they would be sincere in saying so.

However, in practice I’m sure that all of them (all of us?) tend to see the world predominantly in terms of a set of primary concerns that reflect the priorities of their own party, and I think it’s true that amongst those concerns the poor are generally not always top-of-mind. In the case of Democrats, the primary focus is arguably the middle class. And though liberals like to paint Republicans as concerned only with the interests of the wealthy, I think it is more accurate to say that their concern is minimizing government intrusion into people’s lives and giving people the freedom to achieve success on their own merits.

So Herbert’s article is a valuable reminder that poverty is real and that we should be concerned about it. However, at the same time I think the article fails on a couple of important counts. The first is that he says nothing about what should be done to help the poor. It’s easy to say that there is a problem and it’s easy to claim that the reason the problem isn’t being addressed is that other people don’t care. But if you can’t offer at least some sketch of what a plausible strategy for addressing the problem might look like, the condemnation you place on others for not pursuing their own prescription carries a lot less weight than you might want.

However there is another, and I think perhaps more serious, weakness in the article and that is a failure to look more deeply at the scale and cause of the problem. Herbert has this to say about the extent of poverty in the US:

Nearly 44 million people were living in poverty in 2009, which was more than 14 percent of the American population and a jump of four million from the previous year. Anyone who thinks things are much better now is delirious. More than 15 million children are poor — one of every five kids in the United States. More than a quarter of all blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics are poor.

He also quotes Peter Edelman from Georgetown University Law Center:

“There is this astonishing number of people all the way down there at the bottom that we just don’t talk about,” Mr. Edelman said, “and they’re in very big trouble.”

The concern I have is that there seems to be no consideration at all given to the possibility that some of these people may bear responsibility themselves for the situation they are in. I’m not at all suggesting that that this applies to everyone (I don’t agree with this generalization for example), but it seems to me that an understanding of the distinction between those who fall on hard times despite their best efforts and those who fail to make best efforts is a factor that should affect the way you choose to respond to poverty.

Herbert references a claim by Edelman that there are 17 million people in the US living on the equivalent of a family of four on $11,000/year – half the official poverty level. But wait. People don’t end up supporting a family by accident. It happens because of decisions they make, and their capacity to support a family is also a consequence of decisions they make. So if we are concerned about difficult circumstances people find themselves in, shouldn’t we also want to understand how they got there, and particularly what choices they made that led to that situation?

Amongst the adults within those 17 million people, what choices did people make before they had children to equip themselves to be able to meet their families’ financial needs? What educational opportunities did they pursue? What work experience did they gain? What was the financial position of the people they chose to marry or to have sex with? What skills that would enable them to make an economic contribution to society did they acquire while they were still unattached and had greater freedom in the choices they could make about where they would live and work or how they would spend their time and money (or even their parents’ money)?

Let me stress what I’m not getting at here. I am not trying to condemn people who make mistakes and find themselves in situations they regret. We have all made our own, even if we are fortunate enough that they haven’t made us poor. And as I’ve said, I’m not questioning the fact that people can fall on hard times despite their best efforts. Nor am I suggesting that everyone gets the same opportunities in life to develop their earning potential.

What I am saying is that those who care about the poor need to be honest and realistic about the nature of the problem. Bob Herbert invites us to attribute responsibility for the problem to just one group of people: politicians. Well ok, but I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that in reality responsibility goes well beyond that. I believe it’s reasonable to think that for many, many people, the circumstances they find themselves in are a consequence of choices they make. And so if we don’t consider questions like those above, we can’t hope to have a complete picture of the problem. That kind of analysis, or at least some reference to it, is simply missing from Herbert’s article.

Unfortunately, it seems rare to hear discussion about social problems from this perspective. I fear that the reason may be that our society as a whole has greatly loosened its grip on the whole notion of personal responsibility (a theme that I also mentioned here).

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