Politics & Policy

Impoverished Ideas

Being poor ain't all that great.

As you no doubt have heard by now, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd had quite an exchange yesterday about who had the more humble upbringing. Here’s the relevant exchange from the Washington Post’s account:

Senator, I started my life in a house without water or electricity, so I don’t cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch,” said O’Neill, whose father was an Army sergeant and then a veterans-hospital attendant.

“Well, Mr. Secretary,” Byrd responded, “I lived in a house without electricity too. No running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse.”

“I had the same,” interjected O’Neill.

“I started out in life without any rungs in the bottom ladder,” Byrd continued…

As Rich Lowry noted in “The Corner” this morning, this sounds an awful lot like a Monty Python skit (or the Bill Cosby rip-off of same). If they kept going for a few more minutes, you’d expect O’Neill to be bragging about how he’d had to kill a man for his shoes when he was 12.

Now, I know it’s a rich tradition in America to be proud of your poverty. But if it’s so great being born poor, why do we all want our kids to be born rich? And, I should add, of all the members of the Cabinet, the Treasury secretary is the last one I want to have waxing nostalgic about the merits of poverty.

To be fair, O’Neill was on the right side of the argument; he was saying he wants to eliminate anything that might “restrict the realization of human potential.” It’s too bad, however, that he couldn’t avoid sounding like a Scientologist or a member of some alien race from Babylon 5 (same difference, from where I sit), eager to escort us Earthlings down the path to our galactic destiny [cue dream sequence]… “These Terrans show much promise,” the Treasury secretary said into his communication-orb, in the comfort of the private study where he liked to stretch his tentacles and relax with a nice glass of spider-marmalade. “We should help them in any way we can. I’m ordering Lieutenant Glaxnor (John Travolta) and Sub-Commander Lox-Pelt (Tom Cruise) to continue in their efforts.”

Anyway, you may not have heard, but being poor sucks. Oh please, spare me the indignant e-mails about the nobility of poverty and the false god of mammon and all that. Of course, poverty in and of itself is irrelevant to one’s moral worth, intelligence, honesty, reliability, capacity for love or happiness, physical or emotional strength, ability to eat the most hot dogs in one sitting, and so on — these things have nothing to do with how much money you make or have. Though many of these God-given gifts do make it easier to get ahead here in God’s country.

But, regardless, we’re talking generalities here, and as a statistical matter poor people tend to be less educated, less healthy, and less fun to take on trips to sunny beach resorts, because they’re always complaining about how much the piña coladas cost at the pool bar.

Also, the example of the Kennedy family notwithstanding, poor people are more likely to commit crimes and pick their noses and less likely, for example, to read the interior sections of the Wall Street Journal, or give a rat’s patoot about the long-term effects on capital markets of restructuring Argentina’s debt. The ACLU hates to admit this, but the prisons aren’t full of poor people because the rich have better lawyers. The prisons are full of poor people because poor people are more likely to be criminals.

Paul O’Neill told Sen. Byrd he would not “cede […] the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch.” Yeah, okay. That’s cool. But how high can this moral ground be in the first place, considering that when Byrd was so nobly poor he also saw nothing wrong with joining the Ku Klux Klan?

And, does Paul O’Neill really need to know firsthand what life in a ditch is like in order to know that he wouldn’t like it? I know for a fact that I don’t like life in a ditch, and I’ve never lived in one. Does this mean, as a matter of logic, that I’m less right on economic policy than someone who has lived in a ditch?

This whole idea is a close corollary to the notion that concern should trump intellect or values in setting public policy. Hillary Clinton claimed in her Senate campaign, for instance, that she was more qualified because she had greater “concern” about the issues. Quick — who would you prefer to remove your appendix: your hyper-concerned accountant father, or a relatively blasé but widely acclaimed surgeon who’s removed a million appendices over his lifetime? (You didn’t think I’d know the plural of appendix, did you?) Hollywood is full of liberals who care a great deal about social policy, but letting them set it would be like giving Ted Kennedy a bottle of bourbon and the keys to your kids’ school bus.

And, experience is great. But if a thorough understanding of what it’s like to live in a ditch is such a vital qualification for setting policy, let’s replace Byrd and O’Neill both with Sterno Tom and Boxcar Sam — two guys who live in a refrigerator box down by the railroad tracks.

Besides, neither O’Neill nor Byrd deserve any credit for being born poor. That “honor” goes to their lazy, no-account parents. Just kidding, I’m sure they had good parents, which is probably why their parents’ kids grew up to be a pork-crazed senator and a sci-fi-lingo-spouting pod-person in the form of a centi-millionaire treasury secretary.

Which, I suppose, gets me to my only serious point. Poor people in America aren’t particularly poor in the economic sense. Materially, they’re better off than most people in the world today, and they’re certainly richer than most people who’ve ever lived. For example, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation crunched the census numbers and discovered that the “typical American defined by the government as poor has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a VCR, a microwave, a stereo, and a color TV. He is able to obtain medical care… and in the last year he had sufficient funds to meet all his essential needs.”

The biggest nutritional problem for American children is obesity, not hunger. That right there makes the typical poor American wealthier than many, if not most, villages in India or China.

To the extent poverty is a social problem, it’s moral, not economic poverty we should be talking about. Again, as a matter of generality, material poverty in America — to the extent it exists — is not the logical consequence of capitalism or corporate greed or some other “cold impersonal force.” It is a consequence of the habits of the heart of poor people and poor communities.

We made a lot of progress toward (re-)learning this lesson when we reformed welfare in the 1990s and stopped rewarding a culture of poverty. We still have a lot of work to do, of course, and we may not all be able to get as rich as Paul O’Neill. But if you’re raised in a stable home by conscientious parents who impart to you, among other things, a good work ethic, the odds are you’ll be able to pursue happiness in the way the Founders intended. That’s the wonderful thing about America.


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