poverty

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I fell in love with the left wing of the Democratic Party because they, alone, opposed the Vietnam War.  And of course, because they were the party of compassion for the poor.  Over the years, I fell out of love because they wanted credit for their good intentions rather than for what they actually accomplished.

Although the Democrats started the war in Vietnam and a Republican president ended it, I didn’t blame the Democrats or give credit to Nixon.  I didn’t begin to question my love for the left wing until someone I knew and cared for began to get the “help” and “compassion” that were a trademark of the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson began the “War on Poverty.”

What I discovered, to my shock, was that welfare assistance from the government was not a helping hand, or a hand up.  To the contrary, welfare assistance was a sentence to dependency and poverty without an exit.   The details of how the system ran meant that gradually working one’s way back to self-sufficiency was made harder, not easier, by the so-called “safety net.”  The first step out of dependence is part-time work and jobs that don’t last more than a couple of months.  But all the money you make in such jobs goes against your benefits.  Everything with the government is slow, and so the reckoning takes months.  This means that you have to pay back the benefits you received a couple of months ago, just about the time you’re out of work again. So when you need assistance desperately, you can’t get it, but only because you took a job and tried to better yourself.  If you hadn’t tried to take a job you would still be entitled.  So the lesson is—don’t take a job.

It turns out all of the forms of help and compassion run by government agencies have the same basic structure.  You “qualify” by virtue of having little or no income and you “lose” benefits as soon as you get some income or try to get some.  I have another friend who was unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits because he couldn’t find work in his profession in the local community.  When he went out of town to a trade conference (so he could network with people in his profession from all over the country and hopefully find work) his unemployment benefits were cut off.  He hadn’t stayed in the local community “available for work.” Go figure.

I had learned from personal experience that government assistance, as championed by the left, did not actually help to reduce poverty.  Governmental help does not have the right structure, knowledge, or flexibility needed to really help anyone. It is simply a trap. Not surprisingly, data now show (see the graph to the right) that the poverty rate has stopped falling since we began trapping more and more people in these dependency programs.  They have almost no way out.  That was one nail in the coffin of my love for the left-wing.

The next nail in the coffin came as a result of what I learned as a teacher.  At one point as a special education teacher I had a caseload of 28 third grade children with dyslexia—none of whom could read.  I found and used a curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI) that taught every one of them to read.  My school district was uninterested in my success.  DI used phonics and was labeled “harmful.”  DI was removed from the district, without regard to data.  When I realized that the public school system was unresponsive to important outcomes (like whether or not children learned to read!), I began to learn about school choice—in which parents, who do care about outcomes, get to choose a school.

Charter schools, which are public schools freed from the constraints of the administrative bureaucracy of districts and sometimes from the teacher’s union as well, have to attract all their clients.  I went to work for charter schools, and of course, the charter schools in which I was involved used DI. In our schools we taught every one of our students how to read, and we filled our schools, located in poor neighborhoods, with students.  Parents, especially poor parents, were finally able to choose a school that would teach their children to read.  But our schools were not allowed to grow because of deliberate political obstacles.

When I realized that left wing Democrats were the primary obstacle to increased school choice, I was done.  The left wing says it cares about children and the poor.  The left wants to be judged by its good intentions.  But the policies the left supports do not help, and actually hurt children and the poor.  I think results speak louder than words.  I do think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Posted by donc1950@gmail.com in Political philosophy
Let’s end dependence rather than poverty

Let’s end dependence rather than poverty

 

Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless.   “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused.  “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”

What would that do for them, I wondered?

According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the “homeless”:

Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing.  Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management.  Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.

So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn’t afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.”   The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live.  Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse.   This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.

Some time back, the Cato Institute released a report entitled, “The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty—and Fail.”     http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/PA694.pdf  Their estimate is that we spend about $15,000 per person below the poverty line on anti-poverty programs without eliminating poverty.  Michael Tanner noted that most of our efforts are designed not so much to fight poverty, but to make it more comfortable to be poor.  I’d like to suggest that we fight a war to eliminate dependence, rather than to fight poverty.

Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on “the dole.”   People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life.  There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and  worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner.   Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.

According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur.  As a result of this ‘earned benefit’ status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.” http://www.american.com/archive/2009/february-2009/obama-vs-fdr

That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs.  Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone.  Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government.  Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable.  (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.)   We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits.  Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.

Here lies the problem–and also the solution to the problem.  Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence.  All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.  They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won!  We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.

How would that look different from today’s social programs?

For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves.  We would hold them up and give them recognition.  We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance.  They would become our role models.  We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”

For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare.   Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can.  So right now we are forcing dependency—but the War on Dependence would change that.

We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well.  Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes.  If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby.  If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent.   What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents’ retirement fund.  As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans.  Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.

One of the sad by-products of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was.  Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them.  What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself.  Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad.  People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent.  We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.

Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help.    Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized.  Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.  Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees.   Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own.  This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college.  Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools’ own worth.

Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family.  Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored.  People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain—instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.

Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor.  It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person.  We might find that we had already eliminated poverty–that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line.   But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.

Independence is the solution–and we need to return to the habit of valuing it.  There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it.  A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.

 

 

 

 

Posted by donc1950@gmail.com in Social problems