When we think of fire, what comes to mind? An image of acrid smoke billowing out of open windows, flames licking the blackened frames from the inky blackness within. Firemen uncoiling fire hoses, as they prepare to battle the flames. A sense of dread, as we wonder if anyone was hurt or lost in the fire. At no point do we wonder why do the firefighters not battle the smoke, instead of the flames? We don’t, because we know fighting the smoke would do little to nothing about the fire. It is, after all, the fire that causes the smoke.
So why do leftists spend so much time and energy fighting economic smoke?
The left’s loudest political complaint today is “income inequality“, despite the conspicuous failure of leftism to address poverty, against which then President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964. After over half a century of a concerted “war” on poverty, surely by now we’d have seen some results, right? But nevermind that, because poverty is old hat. Income inequality is the new poverty. Unfortunately for the left, it really isn’t, and now they are diverting attention away from the serious problem of poverty, and trying to turn the middle class into an aggrieved class.
The problem is, despite all their good intentions, the blatant failure to achieve their own stated goals of eradicating poverty highlights a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of poverty, as the left continues to confuse the symptom (poverty) with the underlying systemic economic problems that perpetuate poverty. The left has spent half a century fighting the smoke, not the fire, which is why their policies continue to fail to effectively reduce the persistent generational poverty in cities across the United States.
Getting below the Smoke
The problems lie with the leftist conflating the short-term poverty of many Americans with the generational systemic poverty of certain minority groups. For most Americans, poverty isn’t an inescapable social caste, and this is born out by the obvious fact that a majority of people today are much wealthier than they were when they first turned eighteen. The vast amount of temporal poverty is cured by opportunity, time, education, and experience.
Systemic and generational poverty are much more serious issues in the United States, and the connections between poverty and minority status among certain ethnic groups are obvious. However, two ethnic minority groups stand out above other ethnic groups: Oriental Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) and Indians (from India). Chinese and Koreans young adults (age 25 or older) have college education rates above 50%, and among Indians of that same age group, the college education rates are above 70%. The median Asian household earns $66,000, higher than even the $54,000 earned by white households. This fact alone debunks the “systemic racism” claim made by many progressive leftists. Did the racists forget to be racists with these groups? Apparently, because Asians (Oriental and Indian) wouldn’t otherwise be succeeding at well documented rates and levels, right? So let’s take the ludicrous accusation of “systemic racism” off of the table.
Clearly, the answer lies in cultural norms and how those have interacted with political policy. Achievement in Asian cultures is seen as consistent with their cultural identity. Asians place a lot of emphasis on obtaining means to provide for their family, often including their parents and grandparents. If Asians wanted to live a subsistence lifestyle, they could go home to where many of their parents and grandparents emigrated from. They understand and fully appreciate the economic opportunities in the United States, so this is why they have succeeded. And when you consider their cultural philosophies, there are many similarities between the “familial ambition” culture of Asian Americans and “familial/personal ambition” culture of traditional America.
Let’s look at other groups, such as Central American and South American immigrants (legal and otherwise), who have come to the United States looking for economic opportunity. Culturally speaking, the strong emphasis on familial ties and responsibilities leads to many of these immigrant workers coming to the United States to work only so that they can send much of their earnings home. Estimates vary between $23 billion and upwards to $50 billion in expatriated money. This keeps many of these workers from being able to accumulate any wealth in the United States. Highly educated immigrants have succeeded, and even poorly educated immigrants have achieved most of their financial goals (supporting their families abroad), so it is clear that while poverty in these groups is troublesome, it is also largely due to cultural norms. And many immigrants who live in poverty when they first arrive in the United States are self sustaining within a generation (twenty years).
In black communities, again strong familial bonds inform their decisions. Black Americans, as they have for generations since Emancipation, have resisted putting distance between themselves and their parents, often living within blocks of one another, generation after generation. Because of actual systemic racism in the 1940’s through the 1960’s, it was difficult for black Americans to obtain access to anything beyond a basic education. After World War II, Black Americans sought work where they could, particularly in manufacturing and textiles, two industries where education was not required.
Because these industries were primarily in large cities, because of the necessity of large labor forces, Black Americans moved to these cities in the hundreds of thousands, of course causing racial tensions to increase. From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, unemployment rates and, unsurprisingly, poverty rates among American Blacks rapidly declined. In 1979, Blacks reached 23.9% (practically one in four) of the manufacturing work force. As of 2007, however, that had dropped to 9.8% (fewer than one in ten) of the manufacturing work force.
The gap in education has reemerged, after rapidly closing for three decades, and established urban communities that were built up during the manufacturing dominance of the Post-War period from 1945 through 1975 have seen their peak in the 1980’s. A larger percentage of blacks than whites have remained persistently poor since the 1990’s until today, and two generations of Black families have been raised in the manufacturing decline era since the 1980’s.
“Start back 8 feet. Aim at base of fire.”
– fire extinguisher directions
If we want to find a solution, we must first get through the smoke and find the actual fire. Yes, persistent systemic poverty is a serious issue, but it isn’t the cause of the problem. It’s merely the smoke obscuring the real fire. And that real fire is lack of opportunity for serious employment and underlying racial tensions that only exacerbate the tenuous economic conditions of those involved.
A real solution to systemic poverty is three-fold:
… First defusing the growing animosity between ethnic groups (particularly Black Americans),
… Second marketing the American culture of “familial/personal ambition” to minority culture. Part of equality requires buying into this “ambition” isn’t about ethnicity but individualism.
… Third expanding access to the marketplace through free market solutions that acknowledge the realities of a post-World War 2 era manufacturing dominance of the United States.
American skilled and unskilled workers are more than able to compete with foreign workers through productivity, they are simply being priced out of the market by some of the highest corporate taxes in the world, an ill informed Minimum Wage policy that makes it impossible for American workers to compete on price, and a well meaning but misinformed political ideology which focuses all its political energy on trying to put out the smoke, instead of focusing on the fire.
Liberty is For The Win!
What do you think the solution for poverty is at an individual level? Meaning, what changes could I or you make in our own individual lives to fight poverty?
“Poverty” is, unfortunately, a nebulous term for a problem that defies simplification. If we’re talking the specific form of poverty that I’m talking about, then it’s starts with trying to have a frank discussion about race, just so we can get it out of the way of talking about the real issues facing minorities struggling to make it in the US.
For some groups, that’s going to be immigration reform that (a) stops illegal immigration and (b) makes it easier for those who earnestly want to come to America and become part of the American experiment to do just that. For other groups, like black Americans, it’s changing the dynamic in inner city environments. Selling the “American Culture”. A term that I’ve heard that concerns me almost more than any other is “authentically black”. Why should a specific group of people have an “authentic” experience, simply because of the color of their skin? This is a huge barrier. Was Tamir Rice’s experience “authentic”? Michael Brown’s? Trayvon Martin’s?
And what was authentic about getting gunned down as a young man? That conversation needs to change. It needs to be challenged. How each person approaches that is up to them. I come at it hard, being Asian American, I don’t have much sympathy for it, though I understand it and where it comes from. Generational poverty saps hope from a body. Eventually, a person needs to stop caring in order to just cope. How we change that? I don’t know.
The the long term solution (because there isn’t a short term solution) is going to require a lot of unpopular political decisions that many people simply don’t understand. We need to make unskilled labor competitive in the United States again. That’s going to take walking back the Minimum Wage policy in the US.
Check out these essays. It’s admittedly pretty far right wing/libertarian, but the arguments stand on their own.