One of the more contentious issues of the modern age is how to handle society’s poor.
The standard left-wing argument is that government should confiscate money from working taxpayers and redistribute it to the poor with little or no limitations. To not do this, they say, is selfish and not compassionate.
The standard right-wing argument is that the government should leave the poor more or less alone, barring perhaps some minor help, and that the poor should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and work hard and become not-poor.
Who’s right? As usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
As always, we need to start with the facts. Here’s a few.
- America’s poverty rate has been between 10-15% since the mid 1960s.
- Since the mid 1960s, American taxpayers have spent $22 trillion dollars on anti-poverty programs. When adjusted for inflation this is more money spent on every war America has ever fought since the American Revolution.
- After all that spending, America’s poverty rate is still between 10-15%.
Therefore, what is factual and not a matter of opinion is that A) the United States taxpayer is paying a staggering, mind-boggling amount of money on the poor, and B) it’s not helping anyone become less poor. To deny that last sentence is to deny the facts.
To be fair, just because we’re spending too much on the poor (or wasting too much, as the case may be) doesn’t necessarily mean we should be spending zero, right? The answer is, it depends.
Two Types of Poor
Often ignored in “the poor” debate is that there are two distinctly different types of poor people. From the outside looking in, they look the same. In all the statistics, they look exactly the same. The problem is they’re extremely different, to the point of almost being opposites.
The two types of poor people are the Can’ts and the Won’ts.
A Can’t person is someone who is poor for one of two reasons:
1. He/she physiologically lacks the ability to attain and maintain a steady source of income. Examples would be someone who is severely mentally retarded or someone who can’t physically move because of sickness, injury, or unlucky genetics (a person born with no arms or legs for example). These people have little to no income because they more or less can’t support themselves.
2. He/she is a 100% innocent victim of some unavoidable external catastrophe and temporarily can’t pay his or her bills. An example would be a small business owner who gets seriously harmed in an accident caused by someone else, and who can’t work (thus earn income) for a temporary but extended period of time.
It’s important here to understand what “100% innocent” and “unavoidable external catastrophe” means. Many, if not most people in this debate often purposely confuse this issue. This means something happened to you that was 100% external and 100% unavoidable. If you choose to be 70 pounds overweight and smoke cigarettes your entire life, and then are suddenly incapacitated from a heart attack or lung cancer, and now can’t work and thus become poor, then guess what? You are not 100% innocent and this was not an unavoidable external catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe to be sure, but one of your own choosing that you could have avoided with responsible behavior.
A Can’t person is someone who can’t pay their bills because they’re either physically unable to or because they fell prey to an isolated, random event they couldn’t prevent. It’s not someone who has any financial difficulty for any reason whatsoever.
Alright, those are the “Can’t poor,” whom you might call the “innocent poor.” There’s another kind of poor, and these are the Won’t poor; a very different animal.
The Won’t poor are people who don’t earn enough money to pay their bills because they won’t. They could, but they choose not to. Instead, they choose to spend their time doing things like watching TV, playing video games, smoking weed, having babies they can’t afford, sleeping in every day, going to school way, way longer than is required, traveling, engaging in political activism, farting around on the internet, or whatever.
These people are fully physically and mentally able to get a job and keep one, even if a low-paying job. But for whatever reason, they choose to not work at all, very little, or very sporadically. Thus, by choice, they are poor and unable to pay their own bills, often for decades. In many cases, Won’t poor have kids they can’t afford who grow up to become Won’t poor adults, thus perpetuating the cycle forever.
Very unlike the Can’t poor, the Won’t poor are lazy. They don’t want to work. They think you should be forced at gunpoint to pay their bills…possibly forever.
The Can’t poor are innocent and deserve help. The Won’t poor are not innocent and don’t. Whenever you talk about helping the poor, it’s extremely important to separate these two categories. The trick is whenever you look at poverty stats or whenever a politician or pundit talks about “the poor,” these two categories are never, ever broken out. Instead, people lump the Can’t poor and the Won’t poor into the same gigantic category called “poor.”
And that’s bullshit. There is a radical and stark difference between these two groups of people, and society should deal with each group very differently. I’ll get into more specifics in part two of this post.
The next challenge is the issue of exactly how long you should help the poor. Is there a limit?
Help With No Limit
Let’s say you have a friend who is a good guy. He comes to you one day, explains that he got fired from his job (for sleeping at his desk when he was supposed to be working), and asks you for $100 so he can pay his electric bill. You want to help him out, so you give him the $100. It’s not a loan; you give it to him as a gift.
A month later he asks you for money again, this time $200, again to pay some more bills. You ask him what he did with the $100 last month, and he sheepishly admits that he spent it on his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. You scold him, saying that you expected him to spend that on his bills, like he said he would. He apologizes profusely and swears that this time he’ll use the new $200 to pay his bills. You’re a compassionate person and you want to help him out, so you give him $200.
Another month later he comes back and asks for $200 again. Again you ask him what he did with the money last month, and again he admits he blew it on something stupid rather than paying his bills. You ask him if he’s been looking for new jobs, and he says no, giving you some song and dance about how he’s been “too busy with his girlfriend.” However, once again, he swears that this time he will be responsible and pay his bills with your money.
He’s truly a Won’t poor. He might be a nice person, but he’s also lazy and irresponsible. You start to figure out that if you keep giving him money, he’ll probably never get his act together.
Now here’s the question: How long do you keep giving him free money?
At what point do you cut him off and stop giving him anything, knowing that he might end up on the street if you do this? Three months? Six months? Three years?
How about never? Do you keep giving him free cash forever, with the thought that you’d rather give him the money forever than have him become a bum?
Or do you eventually cut him off, knowing that it will probably spur him to get a job and get his finances under his control at least to some degree?
Do you cut him off, and if so, when do you do it?
This is a question of supreme importance and yet another aspect of this debate that is rarely discussed. Most food stamp programs in the United States such as SNAP and EBT last forever, with no end date. This is also true of many more expansive welfare programs in Europe. As long as you’re poor, the taxpayers are required by law to give you free money forever, regardless if you’re a Can’t person or a Won’t person.
I personally know people who’ve had zero income for two years or longer, who live in decent apartments with air conditioning (via subsidized housing), always have plenty of food (via food stamps), their kids, if they have them and they usually do, have an Xbox or PlayStation, a huge flat screen TV, and a computer (via welfare, which never expires when you have kids, even after Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996), and have all of their healthcare costs covered (via Medicaid).
To be fair, they don’t live rich by any means, often don’t have a car, and do experience financial stress. But they’re not living very bad either. The reason they’ve had no income for years on end is because they honestly don’t feel motivated to get a job. They sometimes even admit as much. The system encourages them to be Won’t people, even if they started out as Can’t people.
In part two of this post I’ll cover more aspects of this argument that are often not discussed, as well as some possible solutions.