Poverty means more than just being broke. So when public policies are measured on whether they truly assist the poor, we must do more than just see how much “stuff” they have.
“Americans — even many of the poorest — enjoy a level of material abundance unthinkable just a generation or two ago,” the New York Times reports. “That indisputable economic fact has become a subject of bitter political debate this year, half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty.”
Getting the definitions right is important. We’ve long argued that poverty must not be defined as having no cash at hand. “Broke” and “poor” aren’t the same thing. A full-time college student appears, on paper, to be poor. And he may even feel that way as he eats his ramen noodles. But his situation is fundamentally different from that of, say, a single mother with severely limited job skills, no car, and unreliable child care.
It’s more true to say that poverty is a lack of access to resources. Measures such as income and expenses are helpful, but they don’t present the full picture. A far better definition of poverty is offered by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book “When Helping Hurts.”
“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms...” the authors explain. “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”
The poor lack many intangible things many of the rest of us take for granted. And many of those things are derived from self-sufficiency. Giving people more “suff” doesn’t address the inner struggles faced by the poor.
“The federal government operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and lower-income Americans,” points out Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation. “Of these programs only a couple have any work requirement, and those work requirements have been diminished under the Obama administration.”
That’s why despite spending billions and billions of dollars, the War on Poverty hasn’t produced meaningful results.
“A stronger economy that encourages job growth and opens opportunities for more Americans would help,” Sheffield notes. “So would finding ways to make higher education more affordable, such as reforming accreditation and expanding online learning, as well as expanding school choice for K-12 students to bring quality education to even the lowest-income communities.”
Ronald Reagan war right when he said “I believe the best social program is a job.”
The poor want self-sufficiency, more power over their own lives, and a voice. Those things come from education, employment and a fuller participation in American life.
No measure of how many cell phones they have will tell us whether the poor are being helped.