Saturday, January 6, 2007

Thoughts on Poverty, Part 3

Let's review: I am conflicted about poverty. My conscience and my faith demands that I take (and support) action to help those who are poor, but my logical side demands that what I/we do amount to more than just "feel-good" measures; I want to really help, and certainly not to make things worse. At the same time, it seems that some significant proportion of poverty can be related back to poor behavioral choices--dropping out of school, unwed parenthood, irregular work habits. And I've already established that I don't want to blame the poor, least of all the children of poor families, for their plight.

So where does that leave us? I believe that we have in place the basics for what could be the greatest-ever anti-poverty program, if only we would use it as such. If, as I propose, some proportion of poverty is preventable at a root level by certain behaviors, then the trick is to TEACH those behaviors. In many non-poor families, those behaviors are transmitted as part of the family culture, by parents. Since one of the very root behaviors which breeds endemic poverty is fatherlessness (hence, one less parental role model, and the other overburdened by having to do two jobs), we cannot assume that such transmission is taking place in every home. But we have SCHOOLS. Public schools. Paid for by all of us, with required attendance, free transportation to and from included (the big yellow bus), where they'll even serve lunch and in most cases breakfast... for free, if you can't afford it! So, if the schools hammer that message (graduate, keep your pants up, get a job and work as much as you can), a blow can be struck right at those root causes.

But, "aha," you might say--schools DO that. Who hasn't seen the "don't be a fool, stay in school" posters, or heard ad nauseam about what is being taught in sex ed? To a certain extent, you've got me there. But I do think that parts of our effort are half-hearted. We especially fear offending people by pointing out the consequences of illegitimacy. Somebody (I think at National Review) wrote last week that anti-poverty presidential candidate John Edwards talks about two Americas. There ARE two Americas--one in which people get married before having babies, and one in which they don't. (Man, I wish I had written that. Sorry no link.) And sex ed class isn't the answer... these are, for the most part, not accicidental preganancies. There is a choice being made, rooted in a whole host of bad premises about sex, and parenthood, and family, and passed down from one dysfunctional generation to the next. Schools (and government) need to address that, head-on. Of course, there will be howls--how dare you push the "protestant ethic" on our diverse population? But that's what we need.

But what about "welfare" programs? Well, to a certain extent, I support them. For the most part, they are like Tylenol... they don't cure anything, but they can mask the symptoms until either the antibiotic works, or until the virus runs its course. Such a safety net is good, and necessary. But of course, as the old line goes, "it's a safety net, not a hammock." It is a basic law of human behavior that you tend to get more of what you reward and less of what you punish. So reasonable limits need to be set that limit the "enabling" power of welfare. The '96 welfare reform was a great example of this, and there are still steps that could be taken in the same direction that would be helpful. This is not to say that every limit or cut to welfare is good, or that every expansion is bad. But every change made should be evaluated in light of what long-term good or harm is done.

So, there you have it. Education reform and sensible welfare reform, motivated out of a genuine desire to help people. Sometimes the secret to saying "no" is to have a bigger and better "yes" right behind. So, "no" to the old model that's gotten us where we are now, because "yes" we want to try a new model. Tomorrow, a couple of success stories and some thoughts about what to do about those who cannot or will not accept responsibility.

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