Entering a Poverty Quagmire


Expanding Opportunity Cover

Poverty has many fathers, but its grandparent is scarcity. This is an inherent and ineradicable feature of the human condition—indeed of the natural world. Consequently, attempts to wage war on poverty as opposed to alleviating its symptoms will always become quagmires. It is thus regrettable that Paul Ryan has signed up for a new assault.

It is also unpleasant to say so, as Ryan is by all accounts thoughtful, sincere and compassionate in his concern about the poor. Most poverty warriors are. But a deep if benevolent utopianism underlies “Expanding Opportunity in America,” Ryan’s recent discussion paper on poverty policy.

The paper regrets the welfare state’s habit—which is in fact one of the few things the welfare state gets right—of treating the symptoms rather than the disease of poverty. Ryan defines the success of poverty programs not by the material status of their recipients but rather by the extent of those individuals’ “happiness.” And to achieve this, his plan would return to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified as the War on Poverty’s core mistake: the empowerment of service providers to manage the lives of the poor rather than the simple transfer of resources to alleviate their misery.

Here the utopian, as is often the case, verges on the Orwellian. Service providers in the employ of, or on the take from, the state “would work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty,” including “at a minimum” a “contract” establishing “benchmarks for success” and “sanctions” for breaking it. The rationale is as follows: “Our current system of formulaic aid is focused on treating the symptoms of poverty. Case management, however, can see the potential in its clients and help them get out of poverty.”

Now, it need hardly be said that life plans are good things to have, especially if one is in poverty and needs to get out. But Ryan’s proposal partakes of the essential delusion of Progressivism, which is that if something is a good, the state should contrive to assure its provision. To be sure, Ryan’s service providers could be private—the requirement for choice among them would encourage that—but private entities on the public dole are not truly private for long.

Conservatives are not typically in the business of empowering officers of the state or their deputized private contractors to supervise the formulation of individuals’ “life plans”—with “sanctions” for swerving from them, no less. That the individuals concerned are poor is no apology for this condescension or for the extraordinary state power associated with it, not if—as is the case—Ryan wants to invoke the authority of Milton Friedman, one of whose aims in proposing the negative income tax was to treat the poor like adults.

Nor would the service-provider strategy be particularly effective so long as poverty is understood in its essence: material deprivation rather than an ethereal measure of “happiness.” Government can rather easily relieve the former but has no capacity to provide the latter. Moynihan, with trademark incisiveness, observed that what he called the “services strategy” of the War on Poverty probably had the ironic effect of redistributing income upward because it transferred tax revenue to middle-class social workers and other service providers of the sort Ryan’s plan would empower. Theodore J. Lowi pithily captured this change in strategy between the New Deal, which focused on the alleviation of poverty, and the Kennedy Administration, which was bent on its elimination: “Alleviation was for sissies.”

Yet alleviation is both attainable and affordable. Moynihan also once cited statistics showing that if one-third of the money spent on the War on Poverty had simply been given to the poor, there would have been no material deprivation in the United States. Thus an alternative, which Moynihan, then working for Richard M. Nixon, once championed and which has gained traction among many libertarians: a guaranteed income attached to work incentives, which could replace a vast and imperceptible array of market-distorting poverty programs. Such an approach encourages individuals to formulate life plans and allows reality to impose a morally acceptable range of consequences for failing to live up to them, but does so without the paternalism of hiring social workers to supervise them in the process.

Ryan’s plan is in many respects innovative and admirable. It aims at decentralization, even if, as Richard Reinsch shows, it misfires. It seeks competition. It demands evaluation. But there is also a sense in which it reflects the perspective of someone who has spent, as Ryan has, a career working in and around politics. It is merely the Progressive syllogism, draped in market robes, according to which that which is good—life plans, happiness, oatmeal cookies—should be supplied or guaranteed by the state.

More problematically, in the name of conservatism, it envisions the impossible: a nation without poverty and a society suffused with happiness. This is a new declaration of war, the apparent theory being that the problem with the War on Poverty was merely that its tactics were ill chosen: the wrong beach assaulted, the wrong materiel deployed. But it was the mission itself that was flawed. The generals, the cliché goes, always fight the last war. Ryan, regrettably, has enlisted in it.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. His book American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be published by University Press of Kansas in early 2015.

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  1. nobody.really says

    I’ve previously stated my support for a guaranteed minimum income. But I have my qualms, including the following:

    1. If government transfers funds to people, no strings attached, some people will use the funds to do things that that the public disapproves of. And the public will resent it. Even if the public would support how 99 out of every 100 cents is spent, it doesn’t take much for a demagogue to focus attention on that on that one percent and undermine support for the program at large. Ronald Reagan rode to office on the slogans “welfare queen” and “homeless by choice.”

    Weiner implicitly recognizes this problem when he links to a 1993 (!) column by George Will complaining that some percentage of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts funded art that he – and presumably others – disapproved of. Will ridicules the argument that it was the artist, not the government, that should be held responsible for this result. And the fact that Will objected to only a tiny fraction of the NEA’s grants was similarly unavailing.

    2. Some people are in destructive situations: They may be potentially under the control of violent or manipulative people. Or they may be under the control of mental illness/chemical dependency. Sending grandma a monthly check may simply make grandma a more attractive target for abuse. Giving an alcoholic unencumbered resources may simply give him enough rope with which to hang himself. I’m speaking figuratively, but only barely.

    There is an anti-libertarian argument that objects to this kind of funding. It holds that most people are, in fact, profoundly constrained in their choices – and this is adaptive. Happiness research suggests that people are happier in tight relationships with others – even when they profess a desire not to be. People living on five-acre plots are less happy than people who see their neighbors regularly, etc., etc. And but for an artificial supply of funds, people who get into financial trouble are compelled to interact with others in order to secure help. But in the absence of this kind of compulsion, people in trouble tend to withdraw. People who lose a job or suffer a health impairment promptly drop out of social groups – precisely when social interaction would be most helpful.

    On the flip side, sudden wealth enables people to fulfill their fantasies of rejecting old social constraints that had previously bound them – often to everyone’s detriment. Anecdotally, bankruptcy is rife among lottery winners and professional athletes, while Native Americans that find themselves suddenly flush with casino money have appallingly short lifespans.

    I share Wiener’s skepticism about Ryan’s plan. But that doesn’t lead me to conclude that the plan has more problems than simple wealth transfers, or to abandoning to social safety net. I see challenges all around. Ryan’s plan might be the best of the available options.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    It may be worthwhile to return later to other facets of this piece, but initially, one might go back through it and note the invocations and references to “The State,” which is personified (and not just for purposes of journalistic convenience, but for essential “understanding” of premises).

    If the reader of Professor Rappaport’s essay will pause at each encounter of the use of the word “State” and consider what that use describes or implies (such as an inclusion of actions by operators, managers, decision makers, administrators – natural persons) in the particular context, the essay may take on a different cast; or, possibly not for many.

    Before departing, possibly to return, and despite disagreements with Representative Ryan’s proposals, he does perform a major service by pointing out that individual motivations play a major role in the efforts required of humans to change the “natural” circumstances of residing in a certain degree of subsistence (poverty).

    Missing are considerations (or understanding) of the sources of the formations of those motivations. What is proposed are substitutes for those sources in order to form different motivations.

  3. gabe says

    So now Mr. Ryan would have us believe that a) it is the role of government ( a rather diverse aggregation of people with different motives, ambitions, etc) to assure happiness. My goodness, I can just see the morning headlines 10 years from now blasting away at the governments failure to get the “happiness” quotient above 47.5% and b) that such a governmental aggregation of interests may be channeled and directed toward first defining the objective, formulating and agreeing on means of implementation and appropriate measurements.

    I guess that Old Virginian Patrick Henry misspoke. In retrospect, I am sure he would now proclaim, “give me happiness (guvmint sponsored, of course) or give me death.

    Sadly, Mr Ryan has not just enlisted but he has decided to “go over the top.”

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says

    One more thing!

    “Deprivation” which is so constantly mis-applied as descriptive of “Poverty,” implies that something has been **taken** and is thus a “cause” or description of poverty. True, for example, an individual may be injured or disabled (ab initio or by events), and thus “deprived.” But, “material deprivation” is another matter. The greater ranges of what are regarded as poverty (insufficiencies of material needs) do not result from the **taking** of material needs.

  5. dr. james willingham says

    Could it be that we are entering a planned poverty quagmire, one intended to bring disaster upon disaster, a monumental economic collapse, followed by all kinds of wars, diseases, and deaths, designed to quickly reduce the population of the earth to the desired numbers listed on the Guidestones of Georgia, unless the latter was intended as some ironic and macabre humor? After all, as anyone should know from the developing realities of a future without jobs. Nearly a quarter of a century ago (about Jan. of 91, I think), while serving as a counselor in a high school, I was given some papers by the vocational director of the county schools, papers which she had picked up at a conference on jobs. She asked that I write an evaluation on the papers which I did, concluding that there were no jobs in the future for our children. Why? Automation, computerization and robotics. Workers are no longer needed, and the need not apply. The other day in the hospital, while the attendant was taking my wife to get some x-rays, he suddenly moved out of the way and stopped to allow a robot bearing drugs to pass on down the hall to some nurses station. One wonders if the attendant realized that a robot could be designed to perform his task? There is more, but it is tedious to recount. Even fast food servers are not immune to automation and computerization and robotics just like the assembly line workers with the car companies who have been replaced by flying robotic arms, far more efficient and, surely, less likely to strike or demand medical benefits, etc. O, and retirement involves no benefits either. The aim in that case is replacement designed to last another 20 years or more and probably done by a 3-D Printer on the spot. In the end, only one person will find employment, a theme of some sci/fi story I read long ago.

    • nobody.really says

      While we can overstate the case, Willingham is summarizing part of the thesis of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Once upon a time, nearly everyone was employed in food production — hunting, gathering, farming. In the developed world, a fraction of the population finds employment in these fields, yet food is more plentiful than ever — thanks largely to automation. This didn’t generate long-term unemployment, however, as people found employment in other, less automated fields. When every field is automated — what then?

      What Willingham neglects to mention is that the world in which automation provides all the labor is a world is also a world which is wildly productive. Thus, it needn’t be a world of scarcity — provided we find a mechanism other than market forces for distributing that world’s wealth. If we don’t … well, Willingham’s scenario is one of a number of grim possibilities.

      • dr. james willingham says

        Dear Nobody Really Says: The Grim Possibility does not have to be. Not if the powers that be realize that we need another frontier, namely the stars. This is apparently within reach. Just consider this: I figured out about 25-30 years ago that man had tried to go to the stars in the early 50s. Someone said it was the early 40s. IN ’94 a physicist at the Univ. of Mexico set forth a theory for faster than light travel. His only problem was that the late Ben Rich, then head of the Skunk Works at Lockheed which had produced the Stealth Fighters, had addressed the graduating class of UCLA the year before, ’93, and he had said, “We already have the means to go to the stars.” I rather suspect that he knew we had some methods of faster than light travel actually in operation. After all, when one thinks of seeing some of these ships in the sky that are a mile long, one suspects they were not made to sail leisurely around this planet or even this solar system. And with the 3-D Printers and whatever is beyond them, the providing of food, medicine, building parts for flying saucers, etc., should be no problem for all the populaces of this planet to be able to go to the stars. Just think: Alpha Centauri in two weeks or less and other solar systems and galaxies in a matter of a few months. Where have they gone and what have they already found? If the control freaks could get over their great inner insecurity and loose the reins as in the days of the settling of the West, who knows what intergalactic civilization might come to pass. I mean, after all, Tesla was able and wanted to provide free electricity to every human on earth, and this was around 1900. However, he was blocked by at least one certain wealthy individual who wanted the control of the masses offered by the power grid. One of these days…..

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