Escaping the Poverty Abyss

A resurgence of scholarship documenting the structural causes of poverty has been surfacing, according to the New York Times. I think researchers are making some valid insights into the causes of poverty, which sits atop a 15-year high and reaches 44 millions Americans, but they have a huge blind spot for the underlying reasons for the generational poverty of those in the inner cities.

Some of the latest studies have concentrated on the “culture of poverty,” which predominantly has been the domain of conservatives for the past 40 years to rest blame for the plight of the poor. As the Times reported, today’s studies differ in that they assign blame for the “destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.”

Though I am not one to reject the historical legacy of racism that denied blacks equal opportunities and equal treatment under the law, I tend to reject both conventional liberal and conservative explanations for poverty. That is, I do not believe poverty is a result of the market, nor is it the result of laziness.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson said the “poverty trap” is “related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think,” again according the article. Sampson conducted a study whereby he dropped stamped, addressed envelopes in different neighborhoods to see how many were returned. The results were dramatic. In a former housing project, no envelopes were returned, but more than half were returned in another neighborhood with a similar income demographic. He said the differences were due to cynicism people had about their communities.

Others are looking into how growing up in a violent neighborhood reduces socialization and hinders the development of linguistic abilities by some six IQ points. Family structures are also an important piece to understand the persistent state of inner-city poverty. One-parent families are much more commonplace today than ever before, which reduces the level of parental development and caretaking.

I have to say that these latest studies are a blessing, even if the researchers are not yet hitting on the root of these problems — statism.

A lot of the cynicism stems from a genuine distrust of the law and the people trusted with enforcing the law. Those trapped in poverty have no alternative justice services to support, as allowing competing justice services would compromise “what essentially sets a nation-state apart, which is the monopoly on violence,” Barack Obama acknowledged.

Just in Dallas County alone, a dozen people who were serving prison time have been exonerated based on DNA evidence. These are just a few of the thousands of cases in which DNA evidence was available. Most people languishing in prison are there for petty, non-violent crimes in which no one was put in danger. The drug war has disproportionately hit black men more than any group, so of course there will be more single-parent homes in predominantly black neighborhoods. Welfare programs also incitivize mothers to stay single, according to Mary Ruwart’s book “Healing Our World.” In fact, a Heritage study said that children who recieved aid show “cognitive abilities 20 percent below those who had received no welfare, even after holding family income, race, parental IQ, and other variables constant.”

Additionally, if you do not expect to receive justice, what good is there to care about the law, particularly when the law itself if so unjust? What hope could there be?

Drug prohibition, just like alcohol prohibition, is the cause of rampant amounts of violence and corruption among the police and politicians. For instance, during alcohol prohibition, the murder rate roughly doubled from its pre-war high. Since the war on drugs began in the 1970s, murder rates have nearly doubled again. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it does put to the rest the idea that prohibition lowers crime.

Well-intentioned welfare-statism is not helping the poor much either. Most liberals recognize the income disparities and economic distortions created by government intervention on behalf of corporate interests. Instead of focusing on doing away with those government actions, in the name pragmatism most liberals insist on creating further distortions with the hopes of balancing the playing field, heaping further counterweights on an already unsustainable system that mostly benefits the program administrators. Economic distortions like the minimum wage do little to provide a safety net, but instead place a hurdle in which young people must leap.

That attitude, though counterproductive, is somewhat forgivable. It is nearly impossible to shrink the state; people in a monopoly government are more inclined than most to expand power and deflect blame in order to amass more control. It becomes evident that two wrongs cannot make a right.

While petty handouts are contemptuously put forth as a show of compassion, the big-ticket criminals who run this cartel can waltz home with a clear conscience. That is what the state does. “It bites with stolen teeth,” as Friedrich Nietzsche explained. You might too say it gives back your bootstraps but only after taking your boots.

Image credit: DG Jones, with a Creative Commons license