Wednesday, March 03, 2004

David Brooks on Poverty

David Brooks, the New York Times conservative columnist with the eager-little-boy face, wrote an opinion column on poverty some weeks ago. I set it aside to ripen a bit and then forgot it completely. It cropped up today and as it's a nice, sunny day, talking about the sunny boy of the conservatives, the one whom all liberals struggle not to like, seems apt. Brooks is so very pleasant that it's difficult to stay on ones guard as one really should. Some of my snakes are just the same. Artful Asp, for example, is the cutest little snake you ever saw, and artistic to boot. But turn your back to her, and you'll find her fangs in your backside. Just a reminder for those who like eager little boys.

Here's what David has to say about poverty. He begins by telling the readers what's wrong with John Edward's 'Two Americas' speeches:

Edwards talks about poverty in economic terms. He vows to bring jobs back to poor areas and restrict trade to protect industries. He suggests that if we could take money from the rich and special interests, there'd be more for the underprivileged.
This kind of talk is descended from Marxist theory, which holds that we live in the thrall of economic conditions. What the poor primarily need is more money, the theory goes

Well, I wouldn't call that a theory. It's a fact that if you give a poor person one billion dollars, she or he is no longer poor. Presto! And it's also a fact that if you take money away from the rich and the special interests (I wonder who they are in David's mind) and give it to the poor the latter will have more and the former will have less. As we define 'poor' and 'rich' by the amounts of money the person has, this seems to me quite logical.

But not to David:

Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that liberals have it backward. In reality, culture shapes economics. A person's behavior determines his or her economic destiny. If people live in an environment that fosters industriousness, sobriety, fidelity, punctuality and dependability, they will thrive. But the Great Society welfare system encouraged or enabled bad behavior, and popular culture glamorizes irresponsibility.
We've now had a 40-year experiment to determine which side is right, and while both arguments have merit, it's clear the conservatives have a more accurate view of poverty.

In other words, the more accurate view is that the poor are poor because they are lazy, drunk and unable to control their sexuality. This is the conservative theory on poverty: anybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and if they fail in this, well, the bootstraps will make a handy noose.

The mirror image of this theory is the real reason why it is so appealing to people like David: If the poor are that way because they largely deserve to be poor, then it follows that the rich are also that way because they deserve all the goodies they have amassed. They have been industrious, always on time, teetotallers and sexual abstainers. They have earned their bright eyes and eager smiles and all the shares and bonds in their portfolios.

But the most cursory inspection shows that many of the rich do not deserve to be rich based on these rules. Quite a lot of them just happened to be born into a rich family. Some of them are, to be honest, lazy, rude, unpunctual and practitioners of all sorts of fornication. Yet they stay rich nevertheless.

If so many of the rich don't truly deserve to be rich, it must follow that the same will apply to the poor. There are poor people who work hard in two or three jobs, who are always on time and who are parsimonious in their sex lives. There are poor people who are poor because their health failed them or because they lost a close family member to death or divorce or because they simply lost their jobs. There are poor people who are that way because they never had access to good schools or proper health care or psychological counseling.

Of course it helps to work hard, to be punctual and to plan carefully when children can best be fitted in. All these things are useful in fighting poverty, but they don't guarantee success in life. And David is also wrong in the implicit assumption that the poor who don't have these traits could simply switch them on and thereby join the happy rich. It's not that simple.

I once knew a woman who seemed to embody all the undesirable characteristics of the poor. She had no job, her three children ate fast food and ran around dirty and uncared for, her husband had just left her for another woman whom he had made pregnant. This woman shared a household with a sister and the sister's husband, both on disability insurance.

The family income was completely made out of various government assistance programs, yet there never was enough money. When kind neighbors gave them a few hundred dollars before Christmas, she spent it all on the same day on expensive things for children that were advertized on television, and no money was left for the actual Christmas celebrations.

A perfect example for Brooks' arguments, you might think. And in some ways she was. She was certainly not looking for a job or even taking very good care of her family. She seemed to spend most her days moping around.

But then I found out that she had been her father's sexual slave for twelve years, had been labeled as unteachable at school due to chronic stuttering and suffered from severe, mostly untreated epilepsy. Her sister's disability was caused by the same father's sexual abuse. Neither woman had any self-esteem or even, as far as I could tell, any ability to dream about things being better. How does one use the bootstraps in cases like these? What would David recommend?

One could say that this woman made a lot of bad choices, beginning with her selection of a husband who wouldn't stay faithful. But exactly when was she supposed to have developed the keen perception and self-worth that are needed for making good choices? And how, if money is not the answer, would the necessary services have been made available to her? I can't see my way to blaming her very much. Even if I could, it would be impossible to extend this blame to her children. Perhaps that's why I'm just a lily-livered liberal who gets all muddled and confused when poverty is being discussed. Thank goddess for that.