Over at the Huffington Post, Tom Zeller Jr. has written a multi-page, must-read exploration of “extreme poverty” (those living at half the income or less of the official poverty threshold) in the United States. While the story of course has more than its fair share of shots at Republican presidential candidates, it is quite powerful, poignant, and effectively illustrates our profound cultural and economic challenge.
The rate of extreme poverty is 6.7 percent — higher than at any time since 1975 — and the rate is still climbing. Of course our version of extreme poverty is nothing like what one sees in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or elsewhere, but it is poverty nonetheless. And Zeller doesn’t shy away from reality. Each person he highlights is the product of a broken home, has produced their own broken home, and has often spent time in prison. There is no question their own choices have deeply influenced their economic condition, and those choices will continue to have a profound negative impact even after they make good-faith efforts to turn their lives around. (For example, it is much more difficult to get a job after your driver’s license is suspended, after you have a criminal record, and after you’ve become addicted to drugs.)
It’s at this level that politics largely fails. Legions of social workers and trillions of welfare dollars haven’t stopped the rise of extreme poverty. Rhetoric about family and education won’t restore the family, nor will it keep kids in school. And while people do respond to incentives, welfare reform hasn’t stopped the disintegration of the family. Politics does matter, but even the best policies won’t change hearts. Let’s face it, when you’re desperately poor, the self-discipline and grit required to reverse the course of your life after you’ve already made terrible choices exceeds anything we see in more conventional, middle-class life.
I’ve said this before, but the response (I said “response” not “cure.” We’ll never “cure” poverty in a fallen world) to poverty should be personal engagement. But personal engagement is difficult and can be heartbreaking. Yet that personal engagement should characterize the conservative community. One of the most heartening aspects of this year’s CPAC was encountering conservative after conservative who’d adopted, or was fostering children, or was working directly with a struggling family to break cycles of dependency, illegitimacy, and criminality that sometimes stretched back for generations.
A great injustice of the last political cycle was the absolute vilification of Michele Bachmann, a woman who has truly “walked the talk” when it came to her core values. By fostering 23 children, she has done more to directly support struggling children and families than most of us would do in ten lifetimes. Yet the Left (and some on the right) consistently brand her an agent of hate.
It’s undeniably alluring to think that great social problems can be erased with the stroke of the legislative pen and by deploying the right kinds of resources through well-trained civil servants. It may be alluring, but the quest is hopeless. We can’t delegate responsibility for the health of our community or our families to even the most well-meaning bureaucrats. The responsibility is the individual’s — and ours.