The Destructive Power of Misunderstanding Poverty

In the course of an otherwise good-humored night with friends, I was reminded of some timeworn and violently stupid myths that continue to haunt our national understanding of poverty.

The night had already lost some of its initial spirit of foolhardy adventure when we were approached by a fellow forced--as it must be understood--to make a life on the streets. Though our tailspin into a rather sloppy affair was, by now, irreversible, his question for us was an infinitely simple one: might we spare a buck? In this fearless display of human vulnerability and survival work, the foolhardiest among us saw an opportunity to flex his hard-won credentials as a job coach.

An avalanche of invasive and utterly irrelevant questions began in earnest: "Are you looking for work?" "Well, why not?" "My father's also diabetic, what's your excuse?"

While this is precisely the sort of episode one hopes is never required to illuminate our darkest corners, such a wish carries the venom of its own demise. Intellectual and moral blindness on this subject crops up with frightening regularity across the cultural landscape. Our silence ensures its survival.

Onwards then.

The chief error of this ideological genre--of believing the problem of American poverty to be the problem of a class of idling, insatiable takers--is that it pays homage to a tradition as old as it is dubious. One that is boastful of its profound ignorance to how poverty actually works. Fortunately, there's no need to labor in the dark on this point. The answers are available for anyone who bothers to look.

It's like this: poverty in this country is entirely caused by the way we organize our institutions. As Matt Bruenig frequently points out, more than 85 percent of the nonworking poor in America come from groups that the labor market considers largely useless--children, the elderly, the disabled, students, caretakers and the involuntarily unemployed. Acquiring money outside of market channels is the only way these groups escape poverty. Put simply, our inadequate form of state capitalism, and not a culture of laziness, is clearly responsible for the lion's share of economic suffering in this country. You cannot look at the data and seriously claim otherwise.

But when your allegiance to research, evidence and history is negotiable then the standard for serious-minded analysis tanks to embarrassing lows. "Solving" poverty, as my heedless friend attempted, is one such folly. It's a first-rate silly ass pursuit.

That's because "solving" poverty assumes poverty is a pre-existing condition that we then decide to attack with policy afterwards. But this is totally intellectually backwards. Poverty is a willful creation of our distributive policy from the start.

Recall that the vast majority of poor people are literally incapable of bringing down a market income. The reason they're poor isn't because they don't work, but because our distributive institutions impoverish them by design. That is, the decision to distribute the gains from economic activity away from these groups is one we've consciously made.

The upside is obvious: we could absolutely do otherwise. Take Social Security for example. Social Security can't be said to "solve" poverty because the checks are on the scene before poverty ever has the chance to wreak its havoc. The way to solve poverty then, is to stop creating it in the first place.

That means developing economic structures that don't deliberately impoverish those the market considers disposable. Dramatically expanding our notoriously stingy welfare state is far and away the best and easiest way to accomplish this. And that decision happens at the level of institutions, not individuals. But because these conversations are eternally mired in either intellectual dishonesty or deliberate stupidity, we end up with non-serious, non-rigorous solutions that walk proudly in ignorance--landing somewhere between hideously irrelevant lifestyle guidance and bizarre tirades against the phantom of individual laziness.

Even still, no amount of historical mythmaking can alter the fact that despite the stupendous delusions of most conservatives and liberals, there is a single and uncomplicated cause of poverty: lack of disposable income. Its antidote is equally singular and uncomplicated: more disposable income.

That this simple truth is miraculously lost on so many self-styled experts is the true shame of a nation. The same guy my friend was browbeating was clearly armed with a vastly superior knowledge of how poverty works in a volatile market economy. And he was following the only proven method for alleviating poverty: acquiring more money. In misinterpreting this wisdom for indolence, my friend laid bare his own intellectual laziness. He was plainly out of his depth.

And so I stood aghast that night, watching as an otherwise good-natured dude slid effortlessly into the uniform worn by moral cowards the world over. As jaded disbelief curdled into a type of cosmic rage, I asked myself when the hell we had teleported to this netherworld where men make virtue of wanton cruelty. But such displays of vicious thoughtlessness are the bitter fruits of heritage. That netherworld is our own.