First, when comparing poor people in America today with those of other people in history or across the world today, there are almost no poor people in America at all. For what does it mean to be poor? To be without food, without clothing, without medical care, without shelter, without access to clean water, without access to schools? By that standard, we have by and large eliminated poverty in America and should pause to congratulate ourselves on this historic achievement.
Consider Abraham Lincoln. Born on the Kentucky frontier in 1819, he lived his childhood in cabins with dirt floors and no heating other than a single, wood-burning fireplace. There were few doctors, and those that were available were poorly trained and poorly equipped. If you got sick, you probably died, as Lincoln’s mother died from milk fever. If your crops failed, you starved. For that matter, consider the cotton famines of Lancashire, one of which was caused by our Civil War. The weavers of northern England were prosperous working class people, skilled workers well able to support their families in a thriving industry. But when American cotton disappeared from the market, it took a while to find new sources in Egypt, Turkey, India, and Congo. In the meantime, people starved – literally – in their dozens and their scores, simply because they could find no work. Without work, there was no money to buy food. The British government did not see that it had a duty to do anything about that, any more than the American government of the time saw it had a duty to those who were living the frontier life.
Or consider life today in a place like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are some truly poor people there, who lack food, clothing, medical care, shelter, access to clean water, access to schools. To them, all Americans are rich. And that is not just a fantasy. American poor people are rich compared to poor people in other parts of the world.
Not only are poor people in America well off relative to historic standards in our own society and contemporary standards around the world, but the material abundance that America produces is being shared with the poor in America in many ways. Cell phones are a recent invention. When they appeared, they were very expensive and could only be bought by the very rich. Now everybody has them. The same could be said for television and air conditioning. Not only that, but food costs less and is available in more forms than ever before. The average poor person in America today enjoys a higher level of material abundance than that of middle class families in the 1950s.
Much of the credit for this goes to capitalism, which constantly innovates and improves in the making and distribution of products. Rich people are early adopters of new products, and by their buying provide the capital which enables the producers to make more and better products available more cheaply.
Still, it’s no fun to be at the bottom of the social ladder. Still less is it pleasant to be stuck there, unable to improve your life or the life of your children. In America, the historical pattern for most people is that poverty is a temporary condition. The mobility of our society allows people to work themselves out of poverty. Each generation works to help the next live better, more comfortable lives. Of course, improvident living can make one slide down the ladder, too. As the old saying goes, “Shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves is three generations.” The medieval monks put it this way: “Discipline begets abundance, but abundance, if it be not checked, destroys discipline.” So, people rise up, people fall down, but poverty is not a permanent condition.
There are three historic groups, however, that have struggled with economic mobility. While other groups have come to America poor and then risen, these groups have remained largely stuck. They are each ethnic in origin. They are: African-Americans; Native Americans; and the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia. Each has a unique story, so generalization is difficult. But it should be noted that after the Civil War, the status of African-Americans rose steadily despite prejudice and government repression – until the 1960s.
One can make the argument that government poverty programs create poverty. The people they actually help most are the middle class, well-educated folk who administer the programs. They provide good jobs with good benefits to them. But they keep poor folk stuck in poverty.
Government policy has largely destroyed the African-American family and many African-American communities. For that matter, government policy has certainly played a role in keeping Native Americans poor, and all the vast sums of money poured into Appalachia have done nothing to raise the region out of poverty. Looking beyond these traditionally poor population groups, the new poor we see in America today are largely of the government’s making. Government assistance has created a large dependent class of persons all across the country. And these people cannot seem to get out of their relative poverty, no matter what they do.
Angry activists say that the answer to this is to empower those who would advance poor people’s interests – meaning particularly the Democratic Party. But the poorest folk in our country today – with the worst schools, the least access to food stores, the fewest available jobs, the worst infrastructure, and the most obvious corruption in local government – are all in places where Democrats have been in power for decades and have a virtual monopoly of political power: places like Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia. If giving power to these elites could deliver a better life for the poor of their communities, don’t you think they would have delivered it by now?
They key to social mobility lies in free market capitalism, not government assistance (and the inevitable regulation that accompanies it). Poverty is tolerable so long as it is temporary. If people can improve their lives by hard work, if they can help their children to live better lives, that is enough. As P.J. O’Rourke observed, when he looked at his first college application years later and realized that his family’s income when he went off to college was below the poverty line, “I didn’t know we were poor; I just thought we were broke.” Being broke is a temporary condition that anybody might suffer in one’s life; being poor is a condition of being trapped, held down, without hope of advancement. Multi-generational poverty is the issue we need to address, and it is largely a creation of the same government policies formed to address the needs of the poor.
So, why are there so many poor people in America? Well, by historic and contemporary standards, there aren’t. Those we call poor today are largely those who have been stuck for more than one generation in a dance of dysfunction between deteriorating communities and families and the government that seeks to help them, even as it further weakens them.
Does this mean I am against government assistance to the poor? No. But government assistance is a powerful medicine. Too liberal a use of even the best medicine can create an addiction to it, and then what people will do to satisfy their craving for it will cause their whole social support system to crumble. And this we have done to those we sought to help.