There were several articles in the news this morning dealing with the recent conference at Georgetown University. President Obama, Arthur Brooks, and Robert Putnam debated the issues surrounding poverty in the United States and how to deal with it. As I read the normal rhetoric from both sides of the spectrum, it got me thinking about who is right? Is poverty only a social issue best dealt with by raising more taxes, or is it a market issue, solved by economic growth and more jobs? I thought I might take a moment to discuss this.
USA Today published an article in September, 2014 identifying five reasons why we’re losing the war on poverty. The article begins with “Poverty does not appear to be waiving the white flag anytime soon. While the official poverty rate in the United States recently declined for the first time in seven years, the war on destitution is far from over and feels like a losing battle for millions of Americans.” There are still, as of 2014, 45.3 million Americans who are living below the poverty level.
The five reasons we are losing the battle were identified as:
• Real median household income
• Wealth accumulation or the lack thereof
• Employment-to-population ratio
• Food stamps
I understand that household income has not increased. I also get that this is connected to the lack of wage growth. “Wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP have been declining for over four decades.” I also get the problems associated with the growing gap between those whose wealth is growing and those that are losing ground. But, I don’t understand why the employment-to-population ratio is declining. Economists call this workforce participation rate. The percentage of working-age Americans “with a job is only 59%.” If jobs are being created why are people not taking these jobs? Is it because they may lose the government benefits they receive? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), or food stamps, support about 46.5 million individuals in the US (2014) numbers. Is the workforce participation rate low because people can’t take a low wage job because they lose benefits?
The so called conversation about poverty that occurred at Georgetown was nothing more than a partisan exercise arguing for programs that simply are not as effective as needed, while identifying the enemy list of those that supposedly don’t have a heart. The implication of these comments is that the only one who cares is the government. Therefore, we need to give more money to the government to deal with poverty in this country.
I think Thomas Sowell said it best, “politicians are ill-qualified to redistribute private wealth.” Our government wastes an incredible amount of money trying to “fix” things in highly inefficient ways. We give trillions of dollars to our government while our roads are disintegrating before our very lives. Every time I cross a bridge I wonder whether I will need to lower my window and swim to shore, and watch as time after time we have specials sessions, like in the state of Washington, because our politicians can’t agree on how to deal with education and other critical issues facing us as a country.
This ranting is not a criticism of the Obama administration or the Inslee administration in the state of Washington, nor is it a conservative manifesto. But it is a request for a new way to think about the issues of poverty. We are watching our inner cities explode because of the issues of poverty, drugs, and high levels of crime. There was a report on NPR yesterday where a former policeman, who is now a lawyer, discussed how hard it is to do community policing. He mentioned that in one public housing building you could have several different opinions on how the police should deal with crime. One floor of the building had a no tolerance for crime, while another floor may be selling drugs. To simplify the issues of poverty into linear process is inaccurate and has led to the stalemates of our current situation.
We need a new way of looking at the issues of poverty in our country. We have smart people who are systems thinkers. We should be able to come up with initiatives that are innovative, social, and economic, because the answers will not be found in just providing more government aid, and it will take those who have to share, because it is the right thing to do.
The more I think about it, all of us need a helping hand once in a while. Why can’t we create new solutions to deal with the issues of poverty? I for one am tired of Georgetown panelists saying that conservatives are heartless, or that liberals just want to give it all to the government. Lets figure out how to deal with this as a community. Then maybe something will get done.
And that is my thought for the day!