Everlasting Poverty

Today at lunch we had a very interesting conversation about poverty and what we as a society can actually do about it.

To me it seems like our country is stagnant in its ability to help people in poverty, it simply props people up allowing them to barely survive.  The question really is why?  If the US decided to do something really serious about poverty, what could we really do?

It seems like there is a huge disagreement about what we should actually do.  On one side, many people believe that we should really end all support for chronically impoverished people.  These people feel that government support should be temporarily, if given at all. As far as I understand, the idea is that by propping people up, we are enabling them to be impoverished.  If we end all support for these people, they will get good jobs and will pull themselves up out of poverty.  

On the other side, many people believe that you need to support others and that the system is not really fair.  Children of impoverished people don’t go to great schools, because those schools are not funded at the levels that schools of more wealthy people attend.  This leads to poorer people not being able to attend great colleges.  And if they do, they probably have to work full time while going to school, so they end up not doing as well as students who don’t have to work while going to school.  Food is another issue – more wealthy people can have healthier diets because healthier foods tend to cost more and wealthier people tend to have access to more fresh foods.

Who is right?  Should we kick the support out from under these people?  Should we continue to support people, even though it seems like nothing is really changing.  Actually, it seems like the gap between the wealthiest people and the poorest people is getting larger.

There are really two major problems with helping impoverished people: (1) the cost and (2) our willingness as a society to acknowledge that it is our responsibility to help those in need out.  We spend a huge amount of our federal budget on helping impoverished people.  From Social Security to unemployment to food stamps, these programs cost a great deal of money. Serious programs that raise people out of poverty will, most likely, cost a huge amount of money too.  One could argue, though, that helping the poorest people will ultimately save the country a vast sum of money.  That is because once people are lifted out of poverty, their children will have a much better chance of actually not being poor.  With access to adequate health care and good foods, people will not go to the emergency room as much.  There won’t be as much violence in our society because the only (easy?) way out of a poor situation won’t be drugs and gangs.  There will most likely be less people in jail.

The other factor is actually much harder to fight.  Some people feel that others just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  I did it, why can’t they do it?  Well, because the deck is really stacked against some people.  Really.  It is.  You can argue that it isn’t and use yourself as an example, but until you have walked in someone else’s shoes, it is very difficult to determine how the deck is stacked.  But there are some statistics that back it up.  For example, right now, they chronically unemployed are not being hired back as fast as those who are newly unemployed.  With exactly the same skills, one person who has only been out of work for a short time is more likely to get a job than someone who has been out of work for greater than six months.  Problems like this in society are non-linear.  When one thing goes wrong, it can start a cascade that can destroy someone’s life.  The same is true for starting a life – a kid starts with bad schools and bad nutrition, then has to drop out of school to help pay for food for their family.  They never graduate from high school and end up working crap jobs their whole life.  They have kids and the cycle continues. Then people will say – person X, Y or Z pulled themselves out of poverty.  Well, yes, it is possible to do it.  Just like it is possible to win the lottery.  I just wouldn’t want my life or the life of my children to be set by whether I win the lottery or not.  You have to be an extraordinary person and be quite lucky to boot.  While, if you are relatively well off, the luck part isn’t really needed. And you probably don’t have to be extraordinary, just ok.  I am pretty sure that this can be shown statistically, but I also think that people dismiss these types of statistics as impoverished people just being lazy.

What should we as a society do to try to end poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world?


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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