Poverty Nonsense

Here’s a recent statement frequently suggested by leftist academics, think tank researchers and policymakers: “People were not just struggling because of their personal deficiencies. There were structural factors at play. People weren’t poor because they made bad decisions. They were poor because our society creates poverty.” Who made that statement and where it was made is not important at all, but its corrosive effects on the minds of black people, particularly black youths, are devastating.

There’s nothing intellectually challenging or unusual about poverty. For most of mankind’s existence, his most optimistic scenario was to be able to eke out enough to subsist for another day. Poverty has been mankind’s standard fare and remains so for most of mankind. What is unusual and challenging to explain is affluence — namely, how a tiny percentage of people, mostly in the West, for only a tiny part of mankind’s existence, managed to escape the fate that befell their fellow men.

To say that “our society creates poverty” is breathtakingly ignorant. In 1776, the U.S. was among the world’s poorest nations. In less than two centuries, we became the world’s richest nation by a long shot. Americans who today are deemed poor by Census Bureau definitions have more material goods than middle-class people as recently as 60 years ago. Dr. Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield give us insights in “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor” (9/13/2011). Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more. Two-thirds have cable or satellite TV. Half have one or more computers. Forty-two percent own their homes. The average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France or the U.K. Ninety-six percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry during the year because they couldn’t afford food. How do these facts square with the statement that “our society creates poverty”? To the contrary, our society has done the best with poverty.

Maybe the professor who made the statements about poverty — who, by the way, is black — was thinking that it’s black people who have been made poor by society. One cannot avoid the fact that average black income today is many multiples of what it was at emancipation, in 1900, in 1940 and in 1960, even though average black income is only 65 percent of white income. There is no comparison between black standard of living today and that in earlier periods. Again, the statement that “our society creates poverty” is just plain nonsense.

What about the assertion that “people weren’t poor because they made bad decisions”?

The poverty rate among blacks is 36 percent. Most black poverty is found in female-headed households, but the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits since 1994 and stands today at 7 percent. Today’s black illegitimacy rate is 72 percent, but in the 1940s, it hovered around 14 percent. Less than 50 percent of black students graduate from high school, and most of those who do graduate have a level of academic proficiency far below that of their white counterparts. Black men make up almost 40 percent of the prison population.

Here are my several two-part questions: Is having babies without the benefit of marriage a bad decision, and is doing so likely to affect income? Are dropping out of school and participating in criminal activity bad decisions, and are they likely to have an effect on income? Finally, do people have free will and the capacity to make decisions, or is their behavior a result of instincts over which they have no control? As a black person, I’m glad that the message taught to so many of today’s black youths wasn’t taught back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when the civil rights struggle was getting into gear. The admonishment that I frequently heard from black adults was, “Be a credit to your race.”

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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