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Poor excuse

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 13, 2016 08:01 am

Today, a juxtaposition involving abject poverty. Just the thing for Christmas.First up is an essay on why Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol." It was 1843, and he had just read a government report on child labor in the United Kingdom, which detailed the brutal conditions they had to work under. His original idea was to write a pamphlet railing against conditions for the poor, but he quickly decided to write the book instead and make "the poor" into memorable characters.  Not many other people saw them that way back then:

Popular theories about how—or whether—to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. If they were to be helped, it should be under conditions so awful as to discouraged people from seeking that help. The new workhouses were seen as the perfect solution—where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. "Those who are badly off," says the unreformed Scrooge, "must go there."

Associated with this concept were the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus, who cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an untenable population size. Better that the poor should starve and thus "decrease the surplus population."

Next up, from Reason magazine is  "Stuck. A Reason writer returns to Appalachia to ask: Why don't people who live in places with no opportunity just leave?" Reason writer Ronald Baily discovers that 80 percent of the people of McDowell County, W. Va., where he was born have in fact left. One reason the few remaining give for not leaving is that they want to help the people they think of as family. But that's not all.

But as the mines mechanized and closed down, why didn't the rest go, too? Reed, Whitt, and Slagle all more or less agree that many folks in McDowell are being bribed by government handouts to stay put and to stay poor. Drug use is the result of the demoralization that follows.

In a Fall 2014 National Affairs article called "Moving to Work," R Street Institute analysts Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders asked, "What is keeping the poor from moving their families to new places to take advantage of better opportunities?" They argue that "the answer lies primarily in the structure of poverty-relief programs." In other words, the government is paying people to be poor.

Many of the 80 or so means-tested federal welfare programs that provide food aid, housing assistance, medical assistance, child care assistance, and other services for low-income individuals and families are administered by state agencies that each have differing requirements and standards. "For an individual or family faced with the stressful prospect of uprooting a household and leaving behind established community support systems, even a temporary loss of welfare benefits can be daunting," they argue. They conclude that "America's decentralized welfare state, in short, presents a major barrier to mobility itself."

How do we help the poor without encouraging them, however inadvertently, to stay poor? In Dickens' time, that sentiment was put a little more coldly: Don't want to encourage their lazy malingering! Today we put it in a much nicer way: Giving people what they need where they are discourages them from moving someplace else where the opportunities are better.

But the same sentiment informs both points of view, and it's a legitimate problem to worry about. And no one has ever found a satisfactory answer. Dickens didn't look to government at all. He believed it was the responsibility of employers to look out for the well-being of their employees. Of course that meant people had to have jobs first, so that was a small problem. Bailey says just cutting off benefits would leave a lot of human wreckage in its wake. So he suggests something like  streamlining public benefits and providing some kind of subsidy to encourage people to move to areas with better job prospects. Perhaps by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is now only available to people with some income. Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and then got together with collaborator Karl Marx, and we all know how that turned out.

I was born and raised in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, under conditions similar to the ones described by Bailey. We qualified for the government commodities program, the forerunner of the food stamp program. We had to stand in line for hours to get our share of things like blocks of cheese and powdered eggs and apples and flour. It seemed like a good deal to many at the time. It was all surplus agricultural products that the government gave farmers a fair price for. And the poor got fed, but not in a way that would enclourage them to stay poor.

Of course, it was embarrassing to stand in those lines, maybe even close to humiliating. So the commodities gave way to food stamps, which gave way to SNAP cards. We all stand in the checkout lanes and nobody can tell who is paying with a debit card and who is paying with a government card. No muss, no fuss, no reason to be embarrassed. Is that a better way?

I dunno. I used to joke that I escaped from Eastern Kentucky before the social workers found me. I guess today I would add "before the government took over." My father, bless his heart, was one of those who decided to cut and run with his family. I'll never know but I wonder if having to stand in those awful lines contributed to his decision.

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