Our friend JanetLee from Kittens on the Keyboard wrote a post about the cycle of poverty, and that was all the excuse I needed to inflict an overly long comment on JanetLee and her unsuspecting, innocent readers. How can we break the cycle? Well, how about physically removing people from the places where it occurs?
My comment to JanetLee follows:
Here's my problem with traditional liberal and conservative approaches to dealing with poverty, child welfare, etc.: They invariably wind up being about maintaining poverty rather than changing the conditions that make poverty a generational cycle.
The traditional conservative approach has been to say that we should reward bootstrappers and leave abject personal financial failure as an option because it provides real-world motivation. Anything else, they say, is pouring taxpayer money down a rathole for no discernible social benefit.
The traditional liberal approach creates various programs, with various degrees of incentives and requirements, that channel various monies either to people or various agencies or various non-profits. One of the problems with such an approach is that the size of the problem is so large that you can spend huge amounts of money assisting people and still not spend enough to actually solve the underlying problems and break the cycle. So again, our government anti-poverty programs become ways of maintaining people in poverty and funding jobs at ineffective institutions.
At this point, conservatives tend to throw up their hands and say "stop wasting the money!" And liberals say "well, if you'd just deliver the money better, you'd get better results." And neither response has a meaningful future.
I think we ought to agree on some basic points and build a platform around them:
1. Capitalism involves poverty, at least in a relative sense. If we want to remain a capitalist society, be prepared to accept certain amounts of poverty as a necessary byproduct. Yes, we could "solve" that, but then we wouldn't be practicing capitalism. Personally, I think capitalism is the worst economic system -- except for all the others that I've ever heard proposed. Our goal shouldn't be the elimination of all poverty, but the end of poverty as an inherited trait.
2. Separate poverty from mental illness and/or addiction. A lot of what we define as poverty in America is the result of treatable conditions, and at the very least we can make poverty less dangerous and degrading if we're getting drug addicts into rehab and homeless schizophrenics into treatment.
3. Come up with a sensible national drug policy. The drug trade shapes life in poor neighborhoods and it's a particularly destructive form of vice. Waging a "War on Drugs" hasn't worked. It's time to consider more practical options, and at a minimum we ought to figure out ways to mitigate the problem so that it isn't destroying entire neighborhoods.
4. Break the poverty cycle by removing people via training, education and (drum roll, please) relocation. Back during the welfare reform push I assigned stories that dealt with welfare recipients who were raising children alone, fighting chemical dependency problems,trying to make up for their educational deficiencies and struggling to meet the demands of the new social services system, all while living in the same dangerous, dysfunctional neighborhoods where they grew up. And though you'll read stories about heroic women who overcome these obstacles and succeed, these women are the exception, not the rule.
The rule is that most of these women will fall back into the cycle, and everyone knows it. They don't have the support they need to get out of it. They're surrounded by people who are trying to drag them back down. Most of them are in the situation because their mothers were, and in some cases, so were their grandmothers. They want better for their kids, but they don't see good ways of getting it for them.
I don't think it's in our interest as a society to continue to accept this level of failure. We should be investing in these womens' success, not because we're nice, but because these lives are generating so many problems that we're having to pay for later. What is the cost of a child who becomes a career criminal? An addict? A citizen who opts out of any sense of social responsibility because they've learned the lesson that they're going to fail no matter what? Because they know that deep down, the American middle class fears and despises poor people?
I think it is possible to create programs that enable young, single mothers to fundamentally change their prospects -- and, more importantly, their children's prospects -- but I think it will require creating safe havens outside of the urban ghettos and rural trailer park hells where most have grown up. Places where there are no drug dealers, no sexual predators, no abusive boyfriends hanging barging in.
It's a radical idea, but I think that a model based on voluntary participation in a kibbutz-style community for single mothers and their children could be a way we break the poverty cycle. Mothers would have to choose to abide by strict rules of conduct or face expulsion. In exchange they would get a safe place to live, cooperative child care, first-rate education for their children and adult education and job training for themselves. Mothers would work in the communal industry and basically earn the cost of their family's subsistance, but the rest of us would contribute enough to make sure that the services they receive are enough to change their lives.
I know there are problems with this idea, but I think it's worth exploring. We can continue to pour money into ghettos and get no discernible result, or we could help people invest in themselves via a system that offers a meaningful chance of success.
I wish we were at least talking about such ideas.
Sorry about the long dissertation, but thanks for raising the topic. I've been wanting to talk about this for years.