Friday, May 25, 2007

Right on poverty

Earlier this week, I was at a teaching colloquium at Marquette. There was an outside expert in law school pedagogy who cited research that law students get better grades if they argue with the cases as they read them.

In the same way, I think our arguments on public policy get better (although they might change) if we argue with them and if we take others' critiques of them seriously.

Having brought you that M.O.S. (definition is in the sixth paragraph), Paul Soglin has responded to my most recent post on conservative responses to urban violence and poverty. (He says no talking about the Wisconsin Supreme Court but I shall go boldly whereever the truth leads.)

The Mayor wants to make the argument from middle class flight. While he seems to posit an initial onslaught of violence and poverty (where did that come from?), the argument often goes like this: In the segregated inner city of the past, black lawyers and doctors lived in the same neighborhoods as poor people. Discrimination prevented their escape.

But that has ended and, with greater opportunity, the black middle class has fled. Paul would say that this removed the moral standard bearers from the community and has resulted in what we see today.

I don't disagree with that, but, ironically, this suggests that the problem is an unfortunate result of the civil rights movement. Greater opportunity for some has had bad consequences for those who have been left behind.

Paul might cite some failure to spend money on something here, but I am going to indict the larger society in a different way. We created a welfare system that paid young women to have children and not work and that left young men off the hook. If you think that was compassionate, ask yourself if you'd treat your own children that way.

We created a cultural zeitgeist that came to see sex as the moral equivalent of a tennis match ("thanks for the game") and single-parent homes as just another equally valid family choice. We fostered (and many political leaders have thrived on) the view that opposition to and defiance of the majority culture conveys authenticity. We do not solution to our problem; we must take it from the Man. (That, incidentally, is the problem with much of hip-hop; not who does and doesn't buy it. It - for the profit of the mostly white guys who own and run the record companies - tells both young whites and blacks what is and is not black culture.)

In the end, we both may be saying that the problem is cultural although disagreeing on where it came from and what to do about it. But that agreement is significant because it has implications for what might work.

All sorts of economic opportunity is being left on the table. While we conservatives like to rail against MPS and I think it deserves plenty of criticism, the fact remains that education is on offer there. Teachers show up and they are qualified and willing to teach. If you are poor and are born and live your whole life on 23rd & North, there is a way out of poverty that is virtually guaranteed to succeed. Go to school. Don't have a kid until you are married. Don't get married too soon. Stay off drugs.

We have economic opportunity. Maybe its not "enough" but its there. Poverty has become more of a cultural than an economic problem.

The problem I have with the people on the left who see this is that they tend to believe that these cultural deficiencies can be solved inorganically; that the state can act as the parents that children never had - provide breakfast, inculcate values, provide job training to people who couldn't get through nine grades of schooling.

I don't suggest that we just abandon that, but the existing evidence is that it does not work very well and that some of what we've done (welfare as we knew it) made things worse.

8 comments:

Dad29 said...

Well, Plato thought it would work out just fine.

...which raises the question "Athens or Jerusalem,"

...which brings up the "not-to-be-discussed-it's-un-PC" topic of Natural Law as the unimpeachable source of cultural norms

...which leads us to ask "who opposes the Natural Law?"

Or, better, reminding us that the nature of heresy is to de-couple a good thing (society's obligation to assist the unfortunate) from the fabric surrounding it (the obligations of individuals to right actions), OR to emphasize one good at the expense of other goods.

And to remind us that none are so blind as they who will NOT see.

Anonymous said...

"...We created a welfare system that paid young women to have children and not work and that left young men off the hook. If you think that was compassionate, ask yourself if you'd treat your own children that way."

It was worse than that. At one point, in order to get AFDC benefits, there could not be a man in the house. I'm sure the reasoning was intended to force men to support their families, but it had the opposite effect--it drove them away. I'm sure it didn't intend to "reward" women for kicking their men of the house, but in the end that's what it did. (And, yes, I know some of the men were abusive and, yes, I agree abusive men should have been kicked out of the house.)

But all of that is really beside the point now. If someone runs over you with their car and breaks your leg, they may owe you money for doctors, but if you want your leg to heal, only you can do the physical therapy. "We" all have a part to play in this, but if we want a person to succeed more than the person wants to succeed (and is willing to work to succeed), nothing we can do will make them succeed.

jp said...

Our welfare system was based on European culture. Help those in need and they will help themselves.

The recipients were mainly from a slave culture. That culture did not recognize marriage, family, rights, responsibility, or choices.

Welfare was a form of slavery without the work requirement.

Anonymous said...

I can't agree with that. The history of freed slaves shows incredible resourcefulness, work, initiative and family. During the Jim Crow era, strong black families were essential to survival.

Anonymous said...

The loss of factory jobs, a soft judicial system, and the close proximity to Chicago has given us the current inner-city.

Anonymous said...

So, Rick, after all of this pretense to discuss the central city and its problems, crime etc., as well as the right's thinking about it -- all we have is the declaration that those people have to change their "culture?"

Of course, for these purposes, "culture" has a unique meaning, defined mainly by its isolation from any other social or economic force. Rick this is off the Rack Republican rhetoric, dressed up with 5 cent words. While I don't think its what you precisely intend, you end up where the right always ends up, more or less: "those folks need to simply wake up and suddenly decide to think differently and since this is the only problem, there's nothing the larger community can or should do."

For consistency, please note my standing objection to this nonsense about a culture of dependency based on a cartoon verion of the "welfare state." Setting JP's racism aside (an accusation I almost never make or agree with) - this "All in the Family" Repub rhetoric rests on a factually inaccurate premise. There has never been - or at least for 30 years has not been - a comprehensive system of economiv governmental benefits in this country. A program here and there but nothing particularly substantial.

Even if the facts were there, the causation premise is silly. The opportunities that are available to many of us - the ones you think are also readily available in the central city - offer a vastly better life than any governmental benefits could offer, uncreating the premise for this "culture of depdendency." The incentive to for this "culture" cannot exist, even if one follows the right's rhetorical argument.

Here, like usual, the right's analysis of social problems is aimed at and accomplishes only one thing - the conclusion that the community cannot and should not do anything.

Rick Esenberg said...

Welfare does not have to be "better than" work to create a culture of dependency. The real tragedy of welfare as we knew it is that it was not. IIf you haven't, take a look at Jason DeParle's book American Dream. It's not gospel but its got lessons for both sides.

The "community" (by which I presume you mean the government) has done quite a bit with little discernable impact. I don't really think that it can shut down its efforts and maybe it needs to do more. But whatever it does will have to be different because if it does not address what seem to be current "root causes", it will fail.

Anonymous said...

Rick -

To respond to the first point in your last post. You wipe out the premise of classical economics if your theory is that groups of people have 2 choices and generally reject the one that will maximize their self-interest, i.e., lead to a better life.

Anyhoo -

Your second point is interesting. By "community," I actually mean community. Neighborhood, town, state, nation, etc. But I also mean "government" which is the way people living together in a community act in concert.

More important, I see a glimmer of hope in your second point. We all agree that the government should not do ineffective things. Where the heck is the conversation about what the government can do that will actually help people and communities break the cycles of dysfunction?

You first started this riff on your blog suggesting that it would be a unique discussion among conservatives about poverty, dysfunction, etc., and that you thought these issues should be reconsidered.

The reception your posts have had makes a clear statement. We haven't heard from a single (self-described) conservative who actually thinks we should do something. The major response has been to argue that (1) the government should do nothing (other than law enforcement) and (2) assign blame and culpability, as though doing so has any effect other than trying to justify (1).

PS - the trick, as you know, is identifying the "root causes." You briefly sound like a liberal. Here's my problem: "culture" is not simply a cause, bad parenting is not simply a cause, drugs, violence, etc. are not simply causes - they are, for the most part, effects.

There's cocaine and violence in Mequon -- why is it not of a type and degree though that it paralyzes the community there as it does elsewhere?