The Poverty Industry

by Joe Jacobs


POVERTY AN INDUSTRY? In a perverted way it has become one. Consider how many people are employed in organizations devoted to eliminating or reducing poverty. Not only the enormous government bureaucracy, but also multitudes of philanthropic agencies that justify their existence because poverty is there.

But what is poverty? Is it not having enough to eat or a place to sleep? Very few, if any, of the destitute have been found to be suffering from malnutrition. Occasionally perhaps, an alcoholic or drug user may forget to eat in his addicted haze, but the food is available. No, poverty, is really just a generic term that is used to generate compassion in people of good will.

Since there is no objective standard to define poverty, the bureaucracies that depend on its existence use a convenient yardstick. They decide that the people in the lowest "X " percent of income are to be considered impoverished. The "poverty rate" thus is either a moving target or a fictitious number reflecting the need for a constituency for the liberal left to demonstrate its compassion.

Thomas Sowell, the admirable economist who regularly punctures the hypocrisy of the liberal left says,

Some people worry about the exhaustion of petroleum deposits and others worry about the disappearance of forests. But the political left has a much more immediate concern-the danger of running out of 'the poor' who are used to justify the expansion of government programs.

Now in this time of unprecedented prosperity, we are in danger of losing the poor. What do you suppose the employee of the poverty industry's reaction is? Not to exalt in the fact that poverty is being diminished but rather to worry whether their reason for being (and their jobs) will disappear.

What's the answer? The compassionate liberals have a simple solution-change the ground rules. Members of the bureaucracy whose existence depends on the continued existence of poverty now suggest that we raise the limit of income for the poverty line by $3,000 per year. Isn't that a kick? If Mohammed doesn't come to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed. If we are being successful in reducing poverty, manipulate the numbers to disguise that fact.

The real anomaly behind this subterfuge is that there is no absolute measure of poverty. Compared to people in poverty across the world, our people in "poverty" live a life of luxury. According to Sowell, most Americans living below the poverty line own their own clothes dryers, microwave ovens, color TVs, and VCRs. To most people in the world, this would be living in luxury. But the power of words to create false images prevails and we arbitrarily declare that they are in poverty because their income is below a certain level.

In this era of unprecedented low unemployment, jobs are going begging. The only ones do not work are those who are unable to work or-unfortunately-those who do not choose to work. Bureaucrats of the welfare state have not insisted that their phony compassion be confined only to those who cannot work. If society adopted such a standard, the number of people who really need help would be much less than half the number now classified as in poverty-and the poverty industry would be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Too many jobs depend on the continued existence of poverty. Not an insignificant number of these jobs are in the philanthropy industry. The "do gooders" who run that industry get their physical sustenance as well as their psychological rewards from the continued existence of poverty. I hasten to add that I am not using that term "do gooder" disparagingly, for we need them. Do gooders are the voice of our conscience.

As much of an emotional content as poverty has, the liberals' reluctance to declare it dead or irrelevant is clear. This is another place where Newton's law applies. "A body in motion tends to stay in motion." We cannot develop the "friction" that will stop the motion of the poverty industry as hard as we conservatives try. So poverty will always be with us. If the number contradicts this, the liberals have a simple answer. Change the numbers.

© 1999