How to Stop Propagating Poverty

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2006), 10.8% of adults in the U.S., and 17.4% of children, live below the poverty line. As long as the poor reproduce at a higher rate than the non-poor, it stands to reason that the rate of poverty will  increase. We’ve tried for years to reduce poverty by subsidizing it. That hasn’t worked. No matter how much money we pay poor people to have more children, the numbers of the poor keep increasing.  It would seem that a more effective approach would be to try to reduce the rate of reproduction among the poor.

It’s irresponsible to have more children than one can afford to raise. If the poor have high birth rates because they choose to have more children, the solution is to hold them accountable for their choices. If everybody knew they would have to assume full responsibility for any children they brought into the world, people would stop having more children than they can afford. But, as long as we reward people for doing something we don’t think they should do, why should we be surprised that they keep doing it?

On the other hand, if the poor have more children, not by choice, but by accident, then we should make it easier not to have accidents. The consequences to society of unwanted children go far beyond just the cost of public assistance programs. There are tremendous social costs as well. A great many people who live in poverty are drug and alcohol abusers. Fetal alcohol syndrome causes irreversible neurological damage to the frontal lobes, resulting in the incapacity to develop judgment, empathy, remorse, and conscience. A high percentage of FAS babies are irremediably destined to be sociopaths.

“On average, each FASD individual costs the taxpayer more than $3 million in his or her lifetime (health problems, special education, psychotherapy and counseling, welfare, crime, and the justice system).

More than 60% of prisoners are likely affected by alcohol in utero. It costs approximately $120,000/year to “house” a Young Offender and $82,000 for an adult offender. Punishment does not cure neurological damage.
Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society

Not all unwanted children are born with neurological defects. But even a normal infant, born to a mother who resents their existence and is ill-equipped to raise them, isn’t likely to grow into a well-adjusted productive member of society. Consider the mother who’s addicted to drugs, and will leave her baby with anyone while she goes out to find her next fix. Consider the children of prostitutes whose closest thing to a father figure is their mother’s pimp. In our inner cities, generation after generation grow up immersed in a lifestyle of drugs and crime, accepting that as normal, because it’s the way they were raised.

Children who grow up neglected or abused tend to end up as either predators or prey. We already have an enormous problem with abuse of social services by people who see themselves as victims of society, and believe the world owes them whatever they can get. We already have an enormous problem with more criminals than we have resources to warehouse. How will we manage to deal with ever-increasing numbers of such people? To reduce the proliferation of poverty, we have to reduce the rate of reproduction among the habitually poor.

I see four ways to accomplish this.

  1. Stop paying people to have babies. Those who can afford to raise children don’t need to be subsidized, and those who can’t shouldn’t have them.
  2. Make birth control readily available. Providing birth control does not encourage immoral or irresponsible behavior. Obviously, that behavior happens anyway. I’m far more concerned with the consequences to society of the lack of birth control than with making sure people who don’t care are aware of our disapproval.
  3. People who are too irresponsible, or stoned, or whatever, to use birth control are likely to be too irresponsible, or stoned, or whatever, to raise a child. Any children they end up having are at a high risk for the kind of irreversible neurological defects that exact a huge toll on society. While I’m opposed to abortions of viable fetuses, I do not oppose early-term abortions. In some situations, there are worse things than not being born.
  4. Sterilization should be made an option for people seeking abortions. For women seeking abortions at government expense, I’m in favor of offering a monetary incentive  for voluntary sterilization. It would be far more cost effective in the long run to pay a lump sum up front than to pay indefinitely after the child is born, and it would reduce the overall number of abortions as well as the number of future children to be raised at taxpayer expense.

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The Most Generous Nation in the World

For some reason, Americans have a reputation for being greedy. Perhaps it’s because so many people have been conditioned to associate capitalism with greed. The truth is, the United States is the most generous nation in the world. This chart shows the top ten countries ranked by private charitable contributions.

Charitable Aid Foundation

Arthur C. Brooks, Director of the NonProfit Studies Program at Syracuse University, conducted a study on charitable giving a couple of years ago, and published the following findings.

70 percent of Americans give to charity each year, and do so at far higher levels than people in other developed nations: three times as much as the British, four times as much as the French, and seven times as much as the Germans. …

Why are Americans so much more generous than our European counterparts, many of whom look down on us as being mercenary and crass? Do we give more just because we have more to give? That may be part of it. But the graph above ranks countries by giving, as a percentage of GDP, showing that Americans don’t just give more overall; we give proportionately more, relative to our income, than people in other countries.

In the same study cited above, Professor Brooks also researched relationships between how much individuals give to charity and their socio-political perspectives. Based on the results, he proposed a possible explanation for why Americans are more generous in our private charitable contributions than Europeans are.

Those who believe that government should redistribute income are far less likely to give voluntarily to help others. This helps explain why, compared to the United States, European states … see low levels of private giving.

Perhaps those who feel it’s the government’s role to help the needy don’t contribute as much privately because they believe the government has it covered. Presumably, they figure they’re already contributing through taxes, so it isn’t necessary to donate privately as well. Yet, in this country, the people who believe the government spends too much on social welfare programs pay the same amount of taxes, but still feel impelled to give more of their own private resources to help those who are truly in need.

In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.” Those who “disagreed strongly” with this statement gave an amazing twelve times more money to charity per year, on average, than those who “agreed strongly.”
Arthur C. Brooks

This raises the question of whether those who think it’s up to the government to take care of the poor would be inclined to contribute more to humanitarian causes if the government were not assuming that role. If they paid less in taxes, would they donate proportionately more to charities? If so, we might be able to do a better job of helping the truly needy by eliminating government welfare programs and reducing taxes.

Private charities tend to be more efficient than government programs. (See Feeding the Needy or Bolstering the Bureaucracy.) Given the same amount of money, it’s likely that private charities could address the problem more effectively than the government does. If the government were to get out of the charity business, perhaps the folks who think we’re not doing enough would contribute more of their own time and money, instead of always crusading for higher taxes.

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Published in: on February 27, 2008 at 11:57 pm  Comments (30)  
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Feeding the Needy or Bolstering the Bureaucracy

One reason why many private charities are both more efficient and more effective than government welfare programs is because charities in the private sector are accountable to the people who contribute to them. There’s a significant amount of variance in administrative and fund-raising overhead among different charitable organizations. For example, the American Red Cross spends 6 cents out of every dollar contributed for overhead, while the American Cancer Society spends 31 cents out of every dollar for overhead.* Private charitable organizations are required to make this information available to the public. As a private contributor, you can choose the charities to which you contribute, and make sure you get the best return on your investment for whatever causes you support.

The government, on the other hand, does not publish the percentage of money allocated for social welfare programs that goes to bureaucratic overhead. Given the usual proliferation of bureaucracy in government, I’d be willing to bet that the overhead is pretty high. But you have no way to find out. Nor do you have any choice in the matter, even if you knew.

Nevertheless, there are people who, even while acknowledging that government welfare programs are less efficient and less effective than private charities, still believe the government should appropriate their (and everybody else’s) money to pay for them. Why? They believe that the very fact that it’s involuntary is a good thing. There are two reasons people think involuntarism is good.

  1. They have very little faith in human nature. They believe that they themselves are good, but most other people are not. Consequently, they believe, if the government didn’t force people to support humanitarian causes against their will, they wouldn’t support them at all. What they don’t realize is that empathy is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Empathy is not only the root of conscience, but also of altruism. When we see someone in need, we have an instinctual impulse to help them. However, by delegating that role to the government, we absolve ourselves of the need to take personal responsibility for the welfare of our fellow man. From the perspective of social evolution, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
  2. They want to feel like humanitarians but, if it were left up to their own discretion, they’re not sure they would be as generous as the government is with their money. It isn’t that they have such great faith in the government, but that they’d rather hand over the responsibility to someone else than to accept that responsibility themselves. Then they can feel good about supporting social welfare without having to make the hard decisions themselves.

Unfortunately, the ultimate result of leaving it up to the government is that less of the money spent to aid those in need actually benefits the people who need it, and more of it gets absorbed into the ever-expanding bureaucracy. Private charities have to compete in the free market, where benefactors vote with their dollars.

* Charity Navigator provides comparative data on charitable organizations, incuding how much they spend on actual program services vs. overhead.

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Published in: on January 21, 2008 at 10:44 pm  Comments (22)  
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Giving Away Other People’s Money

People who favor social welfare programs seem to think that they’re acting out of altruistic impulses, and that those who don’t support these programs are uncharitable. There’s a fundamental difference between altruism and redistribution of wealth by the government. Altruism is characterized by an individual acting of his own free will in the interests of others. No matter how magnanimous your intentions, it isn’t altruistic to give away somebody else’s money. Especially when it’s counter-productive.

Philanthropy is intinsically rewarding because being able to help someone in a meaningful way makes people feel good about themselves. That’s human nature. And that positive reinforcement motivates people to increase their generosity. But having something taken from you is not the same as giving. If, instead of being freely given, the same money is appropriated by the government and allocated indiscriminately to people who may or may not be deserving, rather than making the donor feel good, it makes them feel resentful. That, too, is human nature.

Unlike government agencies, individuals exercise judgement in their philanthropy, whether the recipient is a person, a family, or a charitable organization. Even the most altruistic individual doesn’t head down to the nearest skid row and start handing out money to every junkie and bum on the street who’s “less fortunate” than they are. An individual always wants to see a return on their investment. — Not necessarily a return to themselves, but they want the sense of gratification that comes from knowing their “investment” has effected a positive change, rather than subsidizing the status quo.

When one keeps giving money to someone, and they just keep asking for more, eventually one feels like one is flushing money down the pipe, and stops the cash flow. That’s the right thing to do. People are remarkably resourceful, when they need to be. But, for some people, mitigating that need results in prolonging their dependency. Some people are viscerally motivated by the shame of having to accept charity, and feel compelled to prove they’re worthy by striving to better themselves. Others see it as a way to sustain their current level of subsistence without having to make the effort to change.

When charity rests in the hands of individuals, or private organizations that are not legally bound to treat every applicant the same, the way a recipient deals with the assistance they receive effects a kind of natural selection. People who use it to good advantage are apt to receive more. Those who don’t are not.

However, when the government extracts money from us and gives it to whoever signs up for it, as long as they can prove they aren’t gainfully employed, the principle of natural selection is turned on its head. Those who use it to sustain their status quo keep receiving more, while those who use it to pull themselves up and get ahead get less. The insidious aspect of this is the Pavlovian implication it has. — Government social welfare programs reward the very behavior that natural selection (even benevolent natural selection) would rule against.

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Published in: on January 19, 2008 at 11:44 pm  Comments (22)  
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Poverty Is Increasing — And It’s Our Fault

The most significant reason the rate of poverty is increasing in our country is because we’ve established a poverty culture, where generation after generation grows up expecting the government to support them.

Some will shake their heads and point out that welfare pays barely enough to get by on. That may be true but, to some people, regardless of how little it is, getting something for nothing is more attractive than working.  And, if their standard of living is low, they resent the government for not giving them enough to support a higher standard of living. Many also subsidize their entitlements with “unreported income,” and feel justified in doing so because, if they reported it, the evil government would have the temerity to cut their benefits!

I’m not suggesting that this is true of all people receiving government aid. Some people use it the way it’s intended, as a short term safety net to get them through a catastrophic crisis (a role that has traditionally been filled by private charities). But many people make it a lifestlye. And the most insidious part of this culture of dependency is that they raise their children with the same expectations they have. As they have more children, and their children have more children, the number of people who live in a constant state of dependency grows greater with each successive generation. What’s more, the system actually rewards the poor for having more children. The more children you have, the more benefits you automatically get, whether you care properly for your children or not.

If we did not set people up with the expectation that, if they fail to provide for themselves, somebody else will always provide for them, a lot more people would figure out ways to provide for themselves. More significantly, they would be better off by doing so. And so would their children and their children’s children, because children learn by example from the people who raise them and the culture in which they grow up.

I agree with those who say our government is largely responsible for the rate of poverty in this country today. But it’s not because the government doesn’t redistribute enough wealth to the poor. It’s because the government sets up the expectation that people don’t have to take responsibility for their own lives or the welfare of their own families. And that is a great shame.

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Published in: on December 18, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (18)  
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