War on Poverty Attacking the Wrong Target

Poverty of liberty is worse than lack of material goods.

President Barack Hussein Obama, clearly reading his own press, no doubt believes himself to be a great speaker; he's been running all over the country giving speeches.  Unfortunately, every time he opens his mouth, the stock market drops.

At this rate, soon the best description of the War on Poverty will be Pogo's famous line: "We have met the enemy, and he is us" - all of us, except for our new masters in his government, will be numbered among the poor.

Which raises the question - why, exactly, didn't the war on poverty work?  As a nation, we have dumped countless trillions into social programs, and yet the words of Jesus Christ remain as true today as when he said them two thousand years ago: "The poor ye have with you always."  Was all the money just wasted?

A visit to the home of any welfare mom will quickly disabuse you of that notion: No, the money has not been wasted, not exactly.

Compare the emaciated photos of the 1930s Okies with the stereotypical poor people of today, who are just the opposite.  Consider the tarpaper shacks of the past with modern welfare apartments - all right, many of them are very badly run down by their occupants, but they were built with the idea of being a decent home.

It's well known that the average American welfare recipient was more likely to own a color TV than the average European of all income levels until very recently.  In the sense of absolute poverty of people starving to death in the gutter, the war on poverty is indeed over, and we won.

The poor don't see it that way, of course.  In fact, nobody in America except the most recent immigrants would ever for a moment think that there are no poor people here, even though there is not one single individual in this country who is not wealthier, in terms of life expectancy and physical comforts, than all but the tiniest fraction of all the people who have ever lived.

Poverty, A State of Mind

In the material sense, there is no poverty in America.  Poverty, though, is not a reflection of your bank balance.

There's a story about one time when Donald Trump's properties were over-leveraged and his business was in trouble, and he passed a bum on the street while walking into his office building.  He commented to an aide, "That bum is wealthier than I am.  He has nothing and owes nothing, whereas I'm $1 billion in the hole."  Which was probably true at that point - his net worth was negative.

Yet nobody would ever mistake the rich man for the poor man, even though financially it was the other way 'round.

What, after all, is wealth?  It's not money, exactly.

You can't eat money.  You can maybe burn it to keep warm, but it takes an awful lot and doesn't work well.  Money is only worth what you can convince someone else to give you for it.

Being rich is not simply having a large bank balance, that's just the way we keep score.  Being rich is having the ability to easily convince other people to give you what you want, and the confidence that you won't have any trouble doing so.

It doesn't require money to be rich.  In Soviet Russia, theoretically everybody made the same wage or close to it.

The Chairman of the KGB did not receive a million-dollar paycheck.  But he was rich in any practical way: if he wanted a limousine or private jet, he picked up the phone, summoned one, and it came.  Anything he wanted, he could obtain without paying for it in a monetary way.

The Communist system replaced monetary economics as we're used to it in the West with a sort of hierarchical authority system, a little bit like feudalism: you got the things you needed not by swapping them for colored paper, but on account of who you were.  A high-up Communist apparatchik probably didn't have a mammoth bank account any more than the lowliest street-sweeper did.  But there'd be no mistaking the two, just as with Trump and the bum.

What does it mean to be poor?  Most Americans have never truly experienced poverty.  But most of us have had some time in our life when we literally could not have something we wanted very much.

And that, to a greater or lesser degree, is poverty: having to do without because you cannot do otherwise.

Poverty is not a lack of money.  It's a lack of liberty - a certain specific kind of liberty that money can bring, but liberty nonetheless, and the poor are very well aware of this.

Liberty, the Ultimate Wealth

When we think of the very wealthy, we tend to envision "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" - incredible mansions, private yachts the size of ocean liners, armies of servants, exotic cars.  There are indeed, rich people who choose to live that way every day, but most don't.

That doesn't make them any less rich.  Is Bill Gates any poorer if he swings by McDonalds for a Big Mac instead of going to Le Posh Palais for every meal?  No - because he could eat the most exotic and expensive food every day if he wanted to, and he knows it.

The meaning of wealth is the freedom to do, be, go, or own whatever you want.  The truly super-rich are no longer interested in fancy houses and grand meals; that's become old hat.

They want to have what nobody else can - hence the popularity of fine art collecting in the economic stratosphere.  Only one person can own a particular original Renoir, or Monet, and person who does is indeed rich in a way Everyone Else in the world cannot be.

Think about the liberties you have and don't have.  Most people who are reading this have the liberty to go out to dinner tonight, if you so choose.

You could get in your car, this minute, drive to your nearest major city, spend a few nights in a fine hotel, and see a show.  Of course you'd be paying for it on your credit card bill for a while, and you'd burn up your vacation time, but you could.

Sometimes maybe during a bad day at work, you think, "Confound it, that's enough, I'm outta here!"  And then you get right back to work.  But that momentary recollection that you could go elsewhere is refreshing nonetheless.

You cannot, however, charter a private jet and fly to a private island.  Of course you may - it's not illegal - but you can not, because you don't have the money.  You have not the power to persuade the owner of the jet and the island to let you use them, so you don't have the liberty to enjoy them.

When looked at this way, America does indeed have poverty - in fact, in some ways we have more now than ever before.

No, we don't have people starving in the streets, but a hundred years ago, even the poorest person had the liberty to up and chuck it all, move out West, and try to start their own homestead.  Indeed, countless thousands of Americans and new immigrants alike did exactly that.  It's how the West was won.

There's no frontier now, and you can't do that anymore.  Today's poor are given welfare checks instead of opportunities but that is not at all the same thing.

The Poverty of Opportunity

Pioneers have liberty because they face opportunities to make their own lives, successful or otherwise.

A welfare mom has no liberty to speak of because she has no opportunities whatsoever.  Almost every aspect of her life is controlled by a faceless, mechanical, often arbitrary bureaucracy.  Jump through the right hoops, and she'll probably receive the next day's meal, just like a rat in a maze - or perhaps not.

Everything given is just that - given - and not earned.  Nothing she has is hers by right of ownership, only by someone deciding to give it to her.  Not even her children are hers - they can be taken away without notice on a judge's whim.

What if a person on welfare wants to better themselves?  As taxpayers, we ought to encourage this, but our government bureaucracy does just the opposite.  Earn a few dollars in gainful employment, lose your welfare benefits - and most likely your health insurance as well.  The effective tax rate on a welfare recipient's earnings can exceed 100% by the time their travel and child care costs are factored in.

Is it possible to lift yourself out of a life of welfare poverty?  Yes, it is, we know a few who've done just that.  The problem is that our hopeless schools, our counterproductive bureaucracy, and, yes, our minimum wage laws, conspire to make it as difficult as possible.

In practical terms, our underclass is mostly trapped in their poverty by malevolent government action.

The difference between poverty and the wealth of ownership is the liberty that security brings, and indeed the security that liberty brings.  Bill Gates has the all-but-perfect liberty and all-but-perfect security of knowing that he can do pretty much anything he likes that's lawful, nobody will say him nay, and it's most unlikely this will ever change.

Men of lesser wealth can do anything they please within reason, with a fair confidence they'll always be able to.  A middle-class professional knows that, while they may not always be as comfortable as they wish, they'll almost certainly never want for food and a roof over their heads.  Even a skilled workman has the security of knowing that there will always be someone needing a toilet fixed or wall plastered.

Not so the impoverished!  Whatever they might happen to have at the moment is theirs only by the sufferance of others, without even the defense of having been honestly earned.  It's hard to imagine a condition much more soul-deadening and depressing.

The left likes to complain about poverty as a civil rights problem.  They're right, but in exactly the opposite way than they think.

No able-bodied person has a right to be fed, housed, clothed, or otherwise cared for at someone else's expense.  "Social justice" does not mean sending other people the bill for your decisions.

What all Americans should have the right to do, and once did, is to work for their own benefit at whatever terms they find agreeable.  To be assisted in obtaining education - yes, by government, and also by society - not held down by "schools" run for the benefit of greedy union bosses instead of the students.  In short, the right to economic liberty - not equality of results, but of opportunity.

The Irish immigrant, standing on the plains of Oklahoma with nothing more than his bare hands and a knapsack of tools, was richer by far than the welfare mom in her subsidized apartment, watching Oprah on her color TV and waiting for her next ration of USDA surplus cheese.

We have wasted the last forty years and countless treasure in a pointless war on physical poverty.  That's the wrong target.  Monetary poverty is not the cause of spiritual poverty, but its symptom.

There's a simple prescription to solve all our American economic problems, both this current crisis and our longer-lasting but less pointed struggles: Enhance liberty.  Re-emphasize personal responsibility and duty.  Unshackle American businesses and individuals.  Our economy and nation will revive post haste, and the rising tide will indeed lift all boats.

Or, we can sit around and wait for Obama's armies of bureaucrats to drain away the last drops, and leave us all sitting, equally stuck, in the muck on the bottom.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
Fantastic article. I've been waiting for another round of poverty articles to come out after your earlier masterpieces last year.

With Obama doing his thing, poverty (in the sense of lost liberty as you put it) will increase dramatically. Does he realize that?
March 24, 2009 10:47 AM
I cannot help but think that he does indeed realize it, and welcomes it. Hence his chortling on the news when talking about the struggling economy - he just can't conceal his glee at how well things are going. Panic -> Demand for government intervention -> Socialism and loss of freedom - right out of Saul Alinsky's playbook, not to mention Karl Marx.
March 24, 2009 11:46 AM
His giggling seemed very immature to me, as it did many others. I think he's beginning to see that the world is a much bigger, much more complicated place than his simple mind once imagined. His precious government intervention, so previously assured to correct all harms, have driven him into a quagmire. That giggling we saw on 60 minutes was a scared man who was beginning to see how his lack of experience and intelligence are failing him.
March 24, 2009 1:02 PM
I spent my entire childhood in the middle class. I've spent nearly all of my adult life beneath the official poverty line.

When I first started going to college I spent less than a dollar a meal. When I needed to splurge I'd spend about two dollars on a meal. Yes it is possible to spend almost nothing on food and still eat quite well in America.

I have never been poor. I have always been able to keep a roof over my head and food on my table without governmental assistance, excepting student grants. I had an opportunity once to leave official poverty, worked the job two weeks. I'd rather be living in 'poverty' than selling loans designed to put people on the edge of bankruptcy, you can't buy my morals. Now the economy is making it difficult to find a better job than I currently have.

But I'm still not poor. I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and high speed internet. I can't afford to go out to dinner tonight any where nicer than subway or McDonald's but I have friends and I have family, what need have I of money?
March 25, 2009 9:38 AM

What a blessed comment you made. I'm glad for the happiness and contentment you express. My husband and I feel the same way, but we find ourselves to be a shrinking majority. Money isn't happiness. Friends, family and God are happiness.
March 25, 2009 11:35 AM
jonyfries is correct about the sources of happiness, but, although she didn't mention it, she is free to choose what she does and she has her family. That freedom is whats important.

The poor people our government "helps" do NOT have family; their kids can be taken away at any time by child protection workers on a judge's whim.
March 25, 2009 11:53 AM
I must respectfully disagree. I have suffered without access to health and dental care for the past 18 years of my life, because of poverty, stemmming from a disability. I have been without my gas for the past 4 years, because I couldn't afford it when National Fuel hiked their rates by 41% after Hurricane Katrina, and subsequently raised the rates even more since then. I suffer a very real material poverty with lack of my real teeth owing to YEARS of lack of access to dental care. I suffer a very real lack of being able to participate in society, and a very real lack of winter heat (I live near the Great Lakes), cooking, and hot water to bathe regularly and keep my cookware and eating utensils clean.

I also must respectfully disagree that helping those who have been and who are disenfranchized (largely due to discrimination and lack of enough opportunities for everyone) causes them to be poor. W

hen no one will give you a chance so you CAN make a living, when no one will let you work at a job that pays a living wage with health benefits because you're a middle-aged woman who had been out of the workforce for over a decade due to health problems, having your meager food stamps cut out of "tough love" will NOT "encourage" you to get on your own two feet. You cannot punish people out of poverty.

Look at who is getting the good jobs and who is not.

Middle class white males and their Barbie counterparts under age 30 who know the right people, they're the ones getting all the chances and jobs just for showing up without having to "prove themselves" - but the poor who have been socially and economically excluded; mostly middle-aged and/or unattractive-looking women and other "minorities", are the ones not getting any chances at all.

There is something seriously wrong when a woman with a degree and a strong desire to work will not get hired in a job that pays enough to be able to thrive, not merely survive, based on looks and age - something the article's author failed to acknowledge.

This article is really thinly veiled deficit theory based editorial piece of blaming the victim just doesn't wash.

When you can't get your health taken care of before something minor ballons into something major, you can't stand on your own two feet. Denying healthcare to those of us who got discriminated against for jobs right into poverty is nothing short of genocide. It is a genocide of socio-economic status across racial and gender lines.
June 10, 2009 4:11 PM
There is no liberty in starvation, no freedom in debt peonage, and no justice in poverty.
June 10, 2009 4:15 PM
@ Jacqueline:

There is no liberty, freedom or justice in government welfare either.

I - one of those 30 year old, middle class males with a Barbie counterpart - will continue working independently, without government aid or preferential treatment, to build my fortune one brick at a time. A lot of that fortune will be taken by the government and redistributed to people like you who will - without hesitation - insist that I haven't done enough already and must continue giving more.

No one owes you health care or a job. You are only entitled to compete as best you can without the government interfering.

Stop whining about what you're "not allowed to do" and go offer something to society that someone is willing to pay for. If you're disabled, find a church or ministry that will give you aid. They are on every corner.
June 10, 2009 6:57 PM
A bit late in this thread, but I found this little satirical art-work priceless!
December 3, 2009 8:44 AM
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