D. Dowd Muska


Fifty Years Later, Still Getting Poverty Wrong

September 20, 2012

The September issue of St. Anthony Messenger features a “special report” on poverty.

The magazine, published since 1893, is online, and “goes out to more than 350,000 subscribers across the country and around the world.” It’s disappointing that a publication with a rich history and so wide a reach egregiously bungles such a weighty issue.

But getting poverty wrong is time-honored convention for the religious left. Faith-based liberals played a big role in the creation of the Great Society, and nearly five decades later, they defend the social-welfare complex as reflexively as do their secular allies.

In one sense, LBJ’s dream has been achieved. The humorist Fred Reed, penning a rare serious column, offered an incontrovertible assessment: “America has precious little poverty, if by poverty you mean lack of something to eat, clothing adequate to keep you warm and cover your private parts, and a dry and comfortable place to sleep. In the ‘inner cities’ or, as we used to call them, slums, there is horrendous cultural emptiness, yes, and the products of the suburban high schools are catching up fast. But poverty? The kind you see in the back streets of Port-au-Prince? It barely exists in the United States.”

“We’ve won the War on Poverty,” Robert Rector, a scholar with the Heritage Foundation, told The Los Angeles Times in 2004. “We’ve basically eliminated widespread material deprivation.”

Douglas J. Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, averred that while “there is still some real hunger in America, it is found predominantly among people with behavioral or emotional problems, such as drug addicts and the dysfunctional homeless.” Rector’s research reveals that 80 percent of “poor” households have air conditioning, two in three enjoy cable/satellite television, half own a personal computer, half own a videogame unit, and “31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.”

The vanquishment of abject indigence isn’t mentioned by the Messenger. And the Catholic activists the magazine interviewed certainly don’t cite any improvement. They’d rather discuss helplessness. Sheila Gilbert, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, told reporter Carol Ann Morrow that the “poor are those who do not have good choices to make. The only choices they have are bad ones.”

Asked to finger the parties responsible for what Morrow claims is an “epidemic” of poverty, Gilbert plays the collective-guilt card: “I think we have to admit that every single person in this country has contributed to the situation we have today, some more directly than others.”

What nonsense. Is Gilbert unaware that since the 1960s, dozens of programs have been crafted to address what “experts” considered root causes? Housing, healthcare, preschool, K-12, higher education, daycare, energy assistance, legal services, job training -- the spigot was opened wide, and trillions of taxpayer dollars flowed.

Yet low-income households remain, and will persist, as long as young adults make two mistakes that sentence them to lives of chaos and despair: bearing/fathering out-of-wedlock children and failing to cultivate marketable skills.

Illegitimacy, Rector noted, is “almost never” due to “a lack of access to birth control, and generally [is] not the result of purely accidental pregnancies.” Surveys show that marriage is desired by unwed parents, but it’s not a goal worth making anything but minor sacrifices to achieve. Mothers have babies first, then think about landing a husband. Despite good intentions early on, the men who impregnate them rarely hang around to provide the vital, day-to-day contributions of fatherhood.

As for employment, it’s nearly impossible for a family to meet the federal government’s definition of poverty if either its husband or wife works full-time. PK-12 is “free,” college- and university-level educations are so heavily subsidized that they are essentially entitlements now, and vocational traineeships are ubiquitous. If you’re not severely disabled, there’s no excuse for not finding an employer willing to bring you on. (Considerable slack should be cut, it need be said, for job-seekers during the Bush-Obama economic calamity.)

Sadly, poverty-fighters appear to know very little about the actual sources of the problem they claim to combat. The Messenger’s “special report” hews to the narrative that struggling individuals and families are victims of a merciless economic system and an inadequate safety net.

With the exception of comedian-podcaster Adam Carolla, no figure in popular culture regularly inveighs against the nation’s sagging work ethic and crisis of out-of-wedlock births. Politicians and bureaucrats run from the subjects. The legacy media is AWOL.

Is America going to ignore the truth about its underclass for another half-century?

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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