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Some will protest that the question posed by that title is outrageously wrongheaded. To ask what we should do about the poor, they say, smacks of paternalism and noblesse oblige, reflecting a hierarchical mentality in which, the world is divided between “us” and “them.” Rather, they would instruct us, we should speak of “standing in solidarity with the poor.” The question is not what we should do for or about the poor; the question is whether we “identify” with the poor who are the victims of injustice perpetrated by those of us who are not poor. People who are given to such jargon simultaneously, and somewhat contradictorily, never relent in dramatizing the “needs” of the poor and berating the nonpoor for their lack of “compassion.” Pointing out needs, on the one hand, and the need to respond to such needs with compassion, on the other, does sound an awful lot like, well, charity. Which is fine by us, since charity is but another word for love, and virtue does not come more golden than that.

Also from the other end of the political spectrum we are told that our question is wrong. There it is said that the real question is, What can we do about the poor? According to many conservatives, the answer is: little or nothing. It is pointed cut that a bloated and bureaucratic welfare system, on which government at all levels is now spending an unprecedented $184 billion per year, has only exacerbated the problems of poverty. Not only are more people classified as “poor” than ever before, but the underclass, composed largely of blacks and Hispanics, is locked into an intergenerational pattern of “dependency” that makes it almost certain that millions of people will never become self-supporting and law-abiding citizens. 

That, in broad strokes, is the great divide in public discussions of what is to be done about domestic poverty. The divides generally follow; the lines of what are described as liberal and conservative dispositions. The liberals are today at a distinct disadvantage in the discussion and increasingly recognize that they are on the defensive. The equation between compassion and increased government expenditure is increasingly unpersuasive. Despite complaints about “cutbacks” during the Reagan and Bush years, welfare budgets have in fact grown and grown during the same time that—and this by liberal accounts—poverty has gotten worse and worse. It now seems obvious to most Americans that “throwing money” at the problem of poverty is not the answer. 

If the conventional liberal solutions are bankrupt, we must view with some anxiety alternative answers that are being proposed. One alternative is that we should recognize that the entire kit and caboodle of welfare policies and “war on poverty” programs is misconceived. Every compensation for an economic disadvantage, it is argued, creates an incentive for people to become or remain disadvantaged. In this view, people will only take responsibility for their welfare if they know that nobody else will. Some conservatives pride themselves on boldly biting the bullet when they call for the shock therapy of cutting off welfare benefits altogether. This is sometimes called the “cold turkey” answer to the welfare mess. It has the modest virtue of being simple and dramatic, but we expect it is not politically viable in our culture, and a good thing, too. The moral sensibilities of Americans are, however confusedly, formed by a biblical teaching that is very much concerned about—some would say obsessed by—the plight of the poor. The call to be compassionate is not an invention of contemporary liberalism. 

We hear a great deal about how Americans are suffering from “compassion fatigue.” That is why, we are told, the Democratic presidential candidates are pitching to the middle class and avoiding the party’s traditional themes of helping the disadvantaged. On the left of the party—that is, to the extreme left of the political mainstream of which the national party has in recent decades been the far left—such candidates are accused of selling out the principles of liberalism. The more likely explanation is that some Democrats have decided to run to win for a change, and they recognize that the middle class is where the votes are, since most Americans (including many who are designated as poor) think of themselves as middle class. In addition, some Democrats have come to share the near-universal perception that measuring compassion by the appropriation of tax dollars is a truly dumb idea whose time came and went long ago. On questions of domestic poverty, resistance to liberal bromides may be an indicator not of diminished caring but of increased understanding. Americans are suffering not from compassion fatigue but from what might be termed mendacity fatigue. 

Americans more and more realize that they have, over many years, been lied to about poverty, and they don’t like it one bit. They have had enough and they are not going to take it anymore. In the last thirty years, literally trillions of tax dollars have been spent on “helping the poor,” with the result, they are told, that there are more poor people than ever and they are worse off than ever. Not only that: crime is running amok, abortion and out-of-wedlock births skyrocket, parasitic urban males are permanently at war with the culture by age fifteen, and city school systems seem incapable of delivering anything but multicultural trashings of societal values, and condoms. Meanwhile, those who are aptly called the povertycrats in charge of this human shambles demand billions of dollars more in the name of compassion. It is little wonder that, in our political vocabulary, compassion is becoming a dirty word. When voters hear a politician mention compassion, they reach for their pocket books—not to give but to make sure they are still there. 

Perennial alarums are raised about the dangers of a popular “backlash” against the poor, and against poor blacks in particular. Those who sound that tocsin usually accompany it with the demand that more money be devoted to poverty—the bulk of it for the expansion of the bureaucracies of the poverty industry, with just enough going to poor people to keep them in the agitated discontent to which they have become accustomed, destroying their neighborhoods rather than ours. While warnings about a backlash have typically been exaggerated, the time has come to take such warnings more seriously. In the absence of greater candor and of more credible remedies, many Americans are fed up with the question of poverty, and therefore fed up with hearing about poor people. At least they are fed up with hearing about them from politicians, and may be in a mood to give a hearing to very different politicians who tell them that they are right to be indifferent, or worse, to the poor. The prospect that this mood might spread is fraught with ugliness, and not least racial ugliness. 

Popular fatigue is intensified by recklessly inflated statements about the dimensions of poverty in America. Sensible people refrain from taking on unmanageable problems. Although they do not quite put it that way, the message of the povertycrats is that the problem of poverty is unmanageable. What else are people to make of the claim that during a decade of stunning prosperity (despite the recent recession) there was an alarming increase in the number of Americans classified as poor? One thing people might make of it is to more closely examine the claim. That is precisely what is done in a recent and much-discussed study by the Heritage Foundation. 

According to the Census Bureau, over thirty million Americans are living in poverty. That figure is larger than in the 1960s when the war on poverty was launched, and this despite the fact that welfare spending, adjusting for inflation, rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s to its present all-time high. The official poverty line is a cash income of $12,675 for a family of four or $10,419 for a family of three. Those below that line are classified as poor. But who are these “poor” people? The appeal for compassion is accompanied by images of people living in cardboard boxes, of children with hunger-distended bellies, bony ribs, and sunken eyes in this, the land of plenty. There are such people, to be sure. Many too many of them. But nowhere near thirty million or even three million of them. 

Consider but a few items culled from the Heritage study. Thirty-eight percent of persons classified as poor own their own homes. The median value of these homes is $39,200, or 58 percent of the median value of all homes owned by Americans. Nearly half a million “poor” persons own homes worth over $100,000, and 36,000 “poor” persons own homes worth over $300,000. Sixty-two percent of “poor” households own a car, and 14 percent own two or more cars. Nearly half of all “poor” households have air conditioning, and 31 percent have microwave ovens. Poor people on average consume the same level of vitamins, minerals, and protein as do middle-class folk, and poor children actually eat more meat and protein than do their middle-class peers. Poor adults are more likely to be overweight than those in the middle class. 

Keep in mind that poverty is defined by reported cash income. That does not include income from what is politely called the informal economy. Moreover, the government’s own data show that low-income households spend $1.94 for every one dollar of income reported. That is because the official poverty definition does not include non-cash, in-kind assistance such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid. If all welfare benefits are included, the government is spending over $11,120 on every “poor” family in America. The claim that there are more than thirty million Americans “living in poverty” only intensifies the distrust that is corrupting our public life and distracting attention from the very real problem of poverty in this country. 

Numerous government reports make clear that most “poor” Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more personal property than average U.S. citizens throughout most of this century. After adjusting for inflation, the per capita expenditures of the lowest-income one fifth of the U.S. population today exceed the per capita income of the median American household in 1955. The average “poor” American lives in a larger house or apartment, eats far more meat, and is more likely to have a car and dishwasher than is the average West European. Such “poor” people are poor in the sense that they are less affluent than other Americans, but they are not poor in any way that constitutes a national crisis or moral outrage. And of course most poor people do not remain poor. If we accept the government definition of poverty and make the appropriate adjustments for inflation, the majority of Americans over forty years old today once “lived in poverty.” The great majority of Americans do not believe that, which is one reason for mendacity fatigue. 

Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko has been looking at the data and he reports this exchange with a fictional barroom interlocutor who is not impressed by all the talk about rampant poverty in America:

“You are as lacking in compassion as the Heritage Foundation.”
“No, I ain’t. Just the opposite. This stuff about all the millions of poor people makes me proud to be an American.”
“You are proud that we have millions of poor in this country? How revolting.”
“No, look at it this way. If I had told my old man: ‘Pa, when I grow up, I’m gonna have a little house, one or two cars, air conditioning, a space-age microwave oven, a TV, and spend two bucks for every buck that comes in,’ he would have said: ‘Only in America.’“
“Yes, but what would he have said if you told him that despite these possessions, you were still classified as poor?”
“He would have said: ‘Go for it, Kid.’“

Of course Mr. Royko is being frightfully incorrect. We all know that poverty is no laughing matter. It really is not, once we cut through the mendacity and get to the real crisis of poverty in America. The real crisis is related less to income than to behavior, less to economics than to culture. The real crisis is the underclass, a mainly urban and still growing population of those who are “racially isolated” (William Julius Wilson) from the mainstream of American patterns of opportunity and responsibility. For them, the status quo of the welfare system is much more the problem than the solution. Not only the work habits but the most elementary patterns of family and child-rearing have been debased to the point of destruction.

In the 1950s, nearly one-third of poor families were headed by adults who worked full time throughout the year. That figure today is 16 percent. Even using the Census Bureau’s skewed definition of poverty, only 5.6 percent of married-couple families are today “living in poverty.” In 1959, 28 percent of poor families with children were headed by women. Today, over 60 percent of poor families with children are headed by single mothers. In the 1960s, as the war on poverty was getting underway, the black illegitimate birth rate was 25 percent. Today, nearly two out of three black children are born out of wedlock. In the bottom third of the black population, concentrated in our inner cities, over 80 percent of the children are born without a father who accepts responsibility for their existence. Not knowing what it is to have a father, most of them will never know what it means to be a father. The current welfare system is a monumentally wrongheaded and expensive subsidizing of the abandonment of male responsibility. This reality—and not mendacious chatter about thirty million Americans being poor—is the real crisis of poverty in our society.

Because the reality of the underclass has to do mainly with culture and patterns of personal behavior, what government can do to help is limited. Policy experts fiddle with incentives and disincentives in the welfare system, and some states are conducting experiments in linking benefits to work and job training. While they are perhaps modest steps in the right direction, these things have been tried before, to little avail. The one thing it would seem that government should be able to do is effective policing of the neighborhoods of the poor. Underclass criminality is overwhelmingly directed against other members of the underclass. To assure to all citizens the safety of their homes and streets is an elementary obligation of government that has not been discharged for decades. But law and order is hardly the whole answer. The cultural and moral efforts required to reconstruct the ethic of work, lawful behavior, and family responsibility in our inner cities lie outside the competence of government. Parental authority and habits of self-reliance must be strengthened, and, for the most part, the only available institutions for taking the lead in these tasks are the churches in these communities.

Black and Hispanic churches may seem like a very weak reed on which to lean, and they are that. But they are usually the only indigenous institutions on the scene. Regrettably, many inner-city clergy are still content to serve as a claque for a superannuated civil rights establishment that knows how to do little more than make demands for additional government funds, accompanied by a now-tiresome apocalyptic shuffle about the fire next time. These are the clergy, of whom Al Sharpton is but the most notorious, who tend to gain the attention of the media. In the last few years, however, there are a growing number of inner-city clergy around the country who are preaching a different message. They call upon their people to abandon the delusion of revolutionizing a putatively racist society, and to take moral charge of their own lives and communities.

These clergy and their local churches deserve the supportive attention of national religious organizations, the media, and policy experts. At present, they are not getting that attention. There are no doubt several reasons for that. One reason is that social activists in the churches, as well as news executives, still operate by a mindset formed in the 1960s. According to that mindset, poor folk are supposed to rail against the injustice of society and the rest of us are to respond by feeling guilty and then appease the poor by tossing a few more welfare benefits their way. A certain style of white liberalism is expert at choreographing what are essentially black minstrel shows of fake intimidation, and the Al Sharptons are always ready to play their part. The preachers of self-reliance and moral reconstruction are declared to be “conservative,” the ultimate epithet of liberal dismissiveness. In truth, they are the real reformers who are challenging the status quo that is supported by a civil rights establishment and welfare bureaucracy that, some good intentions notwithstanding, encourage the perpetual infantilizing of the inner-city poor.

If the answer to the real crisis of poverty in America is moral reconstruction led by inner-city churches and ancillary institutions, does this mean that the rest of us are let off the hook? The answer is emphatically negative. Policy changes are required to empower poor people to break out of dependency and take charge of their lives. One such change is school choice—a simple demand of justice that will give poor parents and children the same opportunities and responsibilities presently taken for granted by most other Americans who choose their schools, whether by opting out of the government school system or by moving to another community. The school-choice proposal receives regular attention in these pages (see John E. Coons, “School Choice as Simple Justice,” p. 15), and we will not belabor the point here. We would only mention that it is one of the very few items on the domestic agenda of “empowerment” about which the Bush Administration evidences a measure of seriousness.

Genuine reform requires a careful rethinking of attitudes and policies across the board. Peter F. Drucker, doyen of business management and public policy, urges that the time has long since come to recognize that “government has proved itself incompetent at solving social problems.” The answer, says Drucker, is to look to the voluntary, nonprofit organizations that have a demonstrated ability to meet human needs. The Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous, Catholic Charities, the Samaritans, are among the more than 900,000 nonprofits in the country, most of them close to their communities. Despite fashionable derision of the “thousand points of light,” points of light are breaking out all over. Thirty thousand nonprofits, focused on helping those who need help, came into existence in 1990 alone.

Giving the lie to all the talk about compassion fatigue, voluntarism is breaking out all over. There are now some 90 million Americans—one out of every two adults—working as volunteers in nonprofits for an average of three hours a week. Drucker notes that nonprofits have become America’s largest “employer.” Brian O’Connell, head of the Independent Sector, believes that within ten years two-thirds of American adults, 120 million people, will work as nonprofit volunteers for five hours a week. That would mean a doubling of the hours that people devote to helping others, typically on a one-to-one basis of real support and caring. This leads Peter Drucker to a conclusion that is as compelling as it is vast in its implications: “The nonprofits have the potential to become America’s social sector—equal in importance to the public sector of government and the private sector of business.” To which we would add that, although generally unrecognized, the voluntary associations are already the effective social sector in helping disadvantaged Americans.

Drucker’s analysis finds its philosophical and theological counterpart in the teachings of Pope John Paul II. In his recent encyclical, Centesimus Annus, the key concept advanced for meeting human needs is “the subjectivity of society.” That is to say, the poor and disadvantaged are always to be viewed as subjects, never as objects. The Pope lifts up the importance of “intermediate institutions”—what some social thinkers in this country call the “mediating structures”—of family, church, and voluntary associations as the chief instruments for securing individual and social assistance. He places severe strictures on the role of the state in social welfare—a role that, he says, inevitably leads to bureaucratization, depersonalization, and dependency.

Of course, all such reformist proposals are vehemently resisted by those who have a vested interest in statist control of social programs, and are most vehemently resisted by the unions of those who work for the state. Witness the desperate opposition of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to school choice. Curiously, even leaders of the nonprofits betray a statist hostility to the concept of the subjectivity of society. A newspaper interviews an official of Catholic Charities who acknowledges that there has been a remarkable upsurge in the number of donations and volunteers for the organization’s work with the homeless, drug addicts, and others in need. The monsignor is not happy about this development. “This reflects a failure of government,” he says. “In a more just society, these needs would be handled through government programs.” The notion that voluntary response to human need is a stopgap measure until the government can be persuaded to take over is deeply and tragically entrenched in sectors of our political culture.

Policy changes are possible that can help people to help people take charge of their lives. In education, housing, and other areas, vouchers and tax credits have an enormous potential that has hardly been explored. In addition, if President Bush really believes in his “thousand points of light,” says Drucker, he could propose allowing taxpayers to deduct $1.10 for each dollar they give to nonprofits. “This,” he says, “would solve the nonprofits’ money problems at once.” That may be exaggerated, but such a deduction would be a huge help. As it is, the IRS and many states are crying to penalize and curtail donations to nonprofits, and to restrict the tax exemptions essential to voluntary associations. Misguided tax policies, combined with pressure from unionized government workers, threaten to choke off what is truly a remarkable resurgence of American compassion in action.

We have it on the highest authority that the poor will always be with us. Jesus was not recommending passivity or indifference to the plight of those in need. He was stating the simple fact that, in any society and at any time, there will always be a certain number of people who will not be able to make it on their own—who, at least at times, will be in desperate need of help. Most Americans know that, and most Americans care. There is not now, and there probably never has been, a society on earth in which, without coercion, so many people do so much to help their neighbors.

That caring is abused and stifled, however, by the ideologically driven message that thirty million Americans live in poverty, and that the “crisis” is unmanageable absent a vast expansion of government bureaucracy. Caring is abused and stifled by the message that the poor are childlike dependents—objects—who cannot be expected to take charge of their lives. It is abused and stifled by the perverse notion that it counts as “compassion” when a politician votes taxpayer money for welfare programs, but it is pitifully irrelevant “charity” when someone gives five hours a week teaching an inner-city teenager to read so that he or she can get a job.

The American people are not indifferent to the question, “What should we do about the poor?” But they could become indifferent, or worse, if politicians, journalists, policy experts, and preachers continue to discount their commonsensical answers, if we continue to lie to them. There is no compassion fatigue. There is an ominous and growing mendacity fatigue.

Photo by Matthew Hester via Creative Commons. Image cropped.