Friday, January 5, 2007

Thoughts on Poverty, Part 1

My post this morning on the minimum wage raises a couple of thoughts about poverty. I must admit, I am very conflicted in my thinking on the topic. You might think that, as a conservative (who just wrote today on why raising the minimum wage is a bad idea), I might be relfexively against welfare, social spending, etc. You'd be wrong--indeed, the caricature that conservatives in some way "hate the poor" irks me. My problems (and I've got a few) with such programs tend to be both practical and philosophical--questions of "does it work?" and "is it fair?" do matter.

I am VERY sympathetic to the poor, for a variety of reasons. My first teaching job was in a school that was more than two-thirds poor (I mean kids qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program), and some of my favorite students and athletes over the years there were terribly poor. Say what you like about the "root causes" of poverty, it's never the kids' fault. Like many people now in the middle class, I spent some time working through that lowest-quintile of wage earners. (As a newlywed, my entire monthly budget--most of which was based on student loans--was less than my current house payment). And even now, my family's means are limited; as my buddy Ken says, "we're not poor, we're just broke." Admittedly, my situation is one of choice--of career, home location, number of children, etc. I'll argue later that I'm not alone in making choices that have economic consequences, and that admitting that fact and making changes where desired is part of the solution. Finally, I know what it's like to be dependent upon aid from others. I teach at a very-expensive private school. My 3 kids all go there, thanks to very-generous financial aid policies. Not a day goes by that I don't think about the fact that we are "charity cases" (which also motivates me to work hard to in some way merit this charity). And that will certainly go a long way toward puncturing an "every-man-for-himself" attitude toward those even less fortunate.

Most importantly, Jesus said a good deal about true religion being defined by helping the poor, widows, orphans, etc. Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that there is a great deal of difference between "giving" of your own means (which I 100% support, and do) and voting to take money by force from someone else through taxation and giving it away to someone who didn't earn it. However, there is a reason I am a conservative and not a libertarian. To some extent, I support depriving individuals of certain freedoms for the overall "good of society" by my voting behavior; we conservatives don't mind telling someone they can't use drugs, for example. There is no moral reason why economic freedom can't be part of the same discussion. All that said, Jesus also said to be "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). So doing something that makes us feel moral and upright if it is unwise and counterproductive is wrong.

All that only leads to more questions--Why is there poverty? What can we do about it? What should we do about it? My wife says I write too much ("That's not a blog post, it's a book" were her exact words). So I'll break this up and address those later.

No comments: