War on Poverty? A Battle for the Soul.

June 27, 2015

"Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, 'I have been harmed.' Take away the complaint, 'I have been harmed,' and the harm is taken away."
-Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
. . .
Since the 1930s, the Federal government has sought to assist the nation's poor through the provision of a variety of welfare programs. For many in need, the food, financial and lodging assistance served as an invaluable bridge. One that helped them to get back on their feet. Reclaim a sense of autonomy. And, eventually, walk away.
There has been an increasing swath of the population that have came to rely upon these aid programs. A swath that, unfortunately, has never walked away. In fact, their very existences have developed around and come to rely upon the state's welfare provisions.
Perhaps in a distant future, the world will have stumbled upon a well spring of abundance that enables us to interminably provide for the needs of those who, though otherwise healthy and capable, rely upon such subsistence payments. But we are not yet there.
Nearly 50 percent of Americans currently sit on the receiving end of a government handout. A contributing factor to the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) recent pronouncement (here) that the nation's debt threatens to choke economic growth within a decade. Beginning a death spiral that will sap revenue from government programs even as demands grow. Forcing governments to borrow even more.
The CBO went on to say that budget cuts or tax increases now would help to avert that terrifying scenario. The independent CBO, in the starkest warning yet by an independent agency, warned that putting off difficult decisions will only make matters worse.
The CBO's report, as well as many other less frightening accounts, explain that the debt dilemma is one largely driven by the size of the nation's immense and growing social safety nets. And while raising taxes might enable us to continue to grow these safety nets, the question eventually must be asked: why? The U.S. has provided an ever-growing amount of support to an expanding segment of the populace. And while some use that support to get back to self-reliance, many do not. Looking around the country, we see growing numbers of rural and inner-city poor who have come to rely upon government subsistence programs as if by birthright. I'm not talking about children, nor the sick or mentally handicapped. Many of these recipients are perfectly healthy, intelligent individuals who have fallen into a trap of perpetual handouts. Which, any social scientist might argue, has the degrading effect over time of stifling creativity, ambition, and any real sense of self esteem.
We don't need be reminded of the definition of insanity. Yet, that is precisely the path upon which the Federal government chooses stay. Forever providing more. Though it's never quite enough. Though it's just sufficient enough to diminish any sense of personal worth and resolve in the strongest of adults. Let alone the children that grow up in such an environment, supported by vacuous programs that keep one Fed, clothed and housed but address nothing by way of helping recipients to build lives as proud, self-sufficient and capable human beings.
In the 1920s, the field of social psychology posited that human behavior is dictated strictly be one's environment. Then, psychologist Kurt Lewin claimed that human behavior is a product of both the individual and his environment. Eventually, Lewin developed "field theory," which explored the forces and factors that influence any given human environment. Lewin identified two opposing forces present in any given field: helpful forces, which drive people toward achieving their goals; and hindering forces, which inhibit movement toward these goals.
Today, the nation finds too many of its citizens living in grey, run-down environments devoid of the helpful forces that might motivate them to achieve more. The Federal handouts, though well intended, achieve little beyond a meager, monthly subsistence. Hardly the inspiration needed to develop oneself into something more.
Despite the massive burdens created by our ever-increasing welfare programs, the nation's indigent never get ahead. In fact, amid the increasing lip service, financial assistance and demagoguery paid to those in need, we watch them, year after year, slip further from the American Dream. An honest observer would, quite logically, suggest that we owe the nation's neediest an entirely different approach. One that treats these causes of poverty. As opposed to placing salve on its symptoms.
Truth be told, the nation has never been better off than it is today. Though many journalists and politicians would scoff at such superfluity. Facts are facts.
Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve released its quarterly accounting of the net worth of American households and non-profit organizations. The results? Encouraging. You see, despite the diplomatic doubletalk employed by our politicians and then parroted by their media servants, the truth is, the nation is doing great.
According to the Fed, first-quarter household net worth rose by $1.6 trillion from January through March. Hitting an all-time high of $84.9 trillion. Consider the intrinsic data. U.S. GDP stands at $18 trillion. Representing roughly 22 percent of global GDP. Accordingly, U.S. household net worth exceeds the nominal GDP of the entire world.
The underpinnings of such largesse? The United States is an ownership society. Commonly owned assets like stocks, mutual funds, and home values rose. While household debt shrunk. If you belong to the nation's ownership class, then your net worth likely rose last quarter.
Stocks and mutual funds rose $487 billion (0.40 percent in Q1). Residential real estate values - the largest asset for most Americans - gained $503 billion. Home equity rose accordingly.
All the while, households continued to shed debt, as total household debt as a percentage of disposable income was 106.5 percent, down from 107.5 percent the previous quarter. Bringing the nation to its lowest household debt level in a decade.
Finally, household net worth in relation to personal disposable income was 639 percent. Up sharply from 632 percent the previous quarter. This represents the highest level since the third quarter of 2007.
All of which translates to the cosmic, rhetoric-taming conclusion that American households are wealthier than they've ever been. Debt as a share of income? Rising. Home equity? Rising. Net worth relative to disposable income? Soaring.
Yet, certain journalists and political cadres will find such statements enraging. Because it flies in the face of their political agendas. If only they weren't so true.
They howl that such data does not account for population growth. Though nobody said it did. They'll rant that such data does not adjust for inflation. Which won't be argued. They'll bitterly remind us that such appreciating assets generally assist only the nation's ownership class. It's most affluent citizens. Painfully obvious though that is.
So, should not the goal become to erect as many of Lewin's "helpful forces" as possible in those impoverished rural and inner-city neighborhoods? Helpful forces that aim to show poor children and young adults that there is another life available to them. A more rewarding version that involves learning, hard work and an ever-present focus on becoming someone of which you can be proud.
But throughout America, the politics of envy have enjoyed an enthusiastic comeback. Assisted by our politicians who employ class warfare as their cudgel of choice. Aided by segments of the media who won't rest until the nation's affluent have been laid low via redistributive tactics at every level of government. Finally, those seeking to deny us the joy of the Fed's recent reporting will whine that yes, though the nation has gotten wealthier, most of those gains have gone to the affluent. Who own stocks. Homes. And save money. Thus limiting the benefit to the overall economy.
True, that most of the nation's affluent became so by having owned stocks, homes and saving their money is often lost on the enemies of logic. That fact does, however, sit at the heart of a desperately needed clarion call. One crafted for those seeking something better than the lives they've been forced to tolerate. Because being a candidate's favorite poverty anecdote during an election cycle leads to absolutely nothing once the election ends.
While Keynesians speak of the power of the dollar's magic multiplier, they ever fail to mention that it is not spending, but owning, that lifts one from the drudgery of impoverished circumstances.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Sadly, however, a skein of the nation's most vocal pundits increasingly demand that those among the ownership class provide an ever increasing supply of fish, bread and water. Instead taking on the responsibility of teaching the nation's recipient class how to fish. Providing true leadership. Focused on curing a problem's root cause. Which in this case, is the incessant cycle of poverty that has developed and only grown since the Federal government began providing never-ending, self-killing handouts. Instead of the positive forces required to teach people how to thrive, we've long been in the business of helping them to barely survive. It's never worked. Why should it begin to do so after the next election?
Enough election-cycle geometry. We're killing the very values upon which the nation was founded. While stealing the humanity from those who need it most. As those on the receiving end never find themselves making real progress. Only regressing. As they increasingly rely upon the generosity of others. Instead of the promise within themselves.
Why does the Federal government not find and fan the flames of real community leadership? That has no agenda beyond helping the community to regain their pride and promise? What about the joint corporate and faith-based initiatives that were so effective under the Bush administration? Only to be shut down six years ago? What about tax breaks for corporations that adopt inner-city and rural communities? Provide coaching and mentors for children and young adults? Supplemental education for those in need? Rewards for those willing to climb the ladder towards an education, vocational training and self-reliance?
Why doesn't the public sector harness the power and imagination of the private sector? Let Apple repatriate its overseas cash reserves at a non-punitive tax rate if the company agrees to adopt a blighted community. Apply its resources, creativity and intelligence to enabling people to escape their perpetual cycles of poverty.
In his new biography, "Reagan: The Life," H.W. Brands says the following.
"The key to Reagan's success, like that to Roosevelt's, was his ability to restore Americans' faith in their country. Reagan was called the "great communicator" with reason. He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in a manner none of his contemporaries could approach. Reagan's critics often dismissed the role of conviction in his persuasiveness; they attributed his speaking skill to his training as an actor. But this was exactly wrong. Reagan wasn't acting when he spoke; his rhetorical power rested on his wholehearted belief in all the wonderful things he said about the United States and the American people, about their brave past and their brilliant future. He believed what Americans have always wanted to believe about their country, and he made them believe it too."
Today, it seems, we have no such leadership. For the lip service paid to helping the poor is always followed by calls for tax raises to fund more soulless handout programs. The very programs that have accomplished nothing more than helping entire communities acclimate to a hand-to-mouth existence.
Year after year, rural and inner-city children grow up in single-parent households, with scant real role models, mentors or hope. Few of the "helpful forces" that Dr. Kurt Lewin's believed might lead to something better than a life of destitution. Their souls are stolen, early on, by programs trained on nothing more than subsistence living. Children who, given the proper vision and motivation, could achieve anything to which they set their minds.
This must change. Lest we relegate entire populations to endless cycles of poverty. And sentence our economy to a death spiral.
Only by helping those in need to restore faith in themselves can we ever begin to restore their faith in this nation.

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