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Reconsidering poverty

| Monday, January 20, 2014

With the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty,” recent political discourse has addressed our government’s approach to poverty in the United States. Newly elected Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio campaigned against what he called the “Dickensian” New York City that tells a tale of two cities, one of the super rich and the other of the hopelessly poor. De Blasio has laid out an aggressive agenda that involves a universal pre-kindergarten program, as well as expanding the reach of SNAP food stamp benefits.
However, evidence of the last few decades has overwhelmingly shown that expansions of such government programs designed to fight against poverty have proven largely ineffective.
Over the past 50 years, the government has invested $20.7 trillion into means-tested welfare programs, while the official poverty rate has barely moved from approximately 16 percent. As author Robert Rector points out, the amount the government currently spends on welfare programs is more than five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the United States. Further, the flawed Census measurement of poverty fails to consider the benefits of welfare programs, making it near impossible to target which welfare programs are effective and which are failures. As 70 percent of children born into poverty never reach the middle class, our government’s effort to end the cycle of poverty is failing. Somewhere in our current welfare system, our massive investment in reducing the causes and symptoms of poverty is lost. I believe we are not seeing positive returns on our investment because further expansions of current government aid programs fail to foster opportunities of self-reliance and economic independence for welfare recipients, two crucial factors in allowing individuals an opportunity to move up and out of poverty.
Present government welfare programs keep the poorest of our society in a vicious cycle of dependence. A complex system of benefits hinders the successful attempts of the poor to become economically self-sufficient. An alarming number of citizens are becoming less able to escape the grips of poverty, as labor force participation is at a 35-year low. Two million more Americans receive disability payments than did five years ago, and 25 percent more receive some form of food-assistance. A system of benefits and dependency reduces one’s incentive to work and even punishes attempts to do so with the threat of removing such benefits. This system handcuffs those living in poverty by positioning reliance on government aid as a more economically sound decision than participating in the workforce. A mere transfer of resources from the federal government to the poor does prevent the symptoms of poverty (the quality of life for the average poor person has greatly increased in the past few decades), but it does not create a system of self-sufficiency and economic security that would provide the poorest of our society a fair shot at economic mobility.
Further, the current benefits system fails to address some of the root causes of poverty, exemplified by the numerous anti-marriage incentives of welfare programs. The collapse of the family structure in low-income communities has consistently been determined as a core cause of poverty. The number of children born out of wedlock has increased sevenfold since the 1960s. Additionally, children raised in single-parent homes are four times more likely to live in poverty, three times more likely to end up in jail and two times more likely to remain below the poverty line as adults. As popular rhetoric consistently calls for government programs that attack the root causes of poverty, the present welfare state promulgates and even incentivizes the deterioration of marriage, a proven cause of poverty.
Now, a government welfare program or “safety net” to help those who need assistance and support is undeniably necessary in a capitalistic economy. However, our current welfare state has transformed support into dependence. While our present system succeeds in providing individuals relief from the symptoms of poverty, it fails to provide the poor with an opportunity to rise above the poverty line.
Fighting poverty should not be a partisan issue. Any effort to classify either political party as “anti-poverty” is cheap political rhetoric that threatens to reduce our political discourse from a forum of diverse ideas and solutions to a collection of meaningless sound bytes. However, vast expansions and increased roles of government aid programs, while a sincere effort with virtuous aims, have proven unsuccessful in fighting poverty. In order to achieve our nation’s shared promise of providing even the poorest of our society with a fair chance at the American dream, we must transform our current welfare state. We must move from a system of cyclical dependence with little hope of upward mobility to a system of necessary relief aimed at an ultimate goal of economic stability through self-sufficiency.

John Sullivan is a sophomore studying finance and political science. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.

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