The War on Poverty

It’s the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.  Some would argue that we lost. There are still poor people.

Jesus did say they’d always be there.  But when I hear someone say, “well, the war on poverty was a failure,” I hear, “who gives a crap, anyway?”  But the faithful should remember:  we’re not off the hook (Matthew 25:31-46).

That there remain poor people does not indicate the war failed.  The small transfers in wealth did make a difference between misery and … less misery.  Surely the transfers did not cause people learn job skills or become financiers – but they do alleviate pain.

The programs implemented cannot replace some cultural and economic shifts that happened in the 1970’s.  Blacks who were gaining a foot hold in the middle class, did not acquire the wealth that whites did.  Their housing prices lagged even though they sought better opportunities.   Furthermore, good middle class manufacturing jobs were declining.  While we were alleviating poverty, we were still producing more poor people.

We forget that poverty has allies.  Poverty means a cheap labor market.  Some institutions benefit from the poors’ desperation.  It’s easy to exploit them and then blame them for their problems: just make sure, for example, all the markets around them are a little more expensive; charge them exorbitant fees for overdrawing.  Whereas the prosperous have room to make the occasional financial mistake, and can spend frivolously, the poor are penalized if they do not count every penny.   A beer, a gift, a small tax – each of these make a difference.

It’s difficult to admit there will always be some people who are dependent.  So we find remarkably ineffective, and expensive, ways to care for them, like prisons.  Although “Stop being poor” is our demand our lack of imagination ends up having us shut them in a jail cell where we foot the bill.  Why couldn’t we have built a school or paid them to beautify our cities?

Our own moralism, where we demand people “get a job,” is a useless way of solving the problem.  Such moralists don’t really know where the jobs are, nor would they hire the poors anyway.  Economists are quite aware of the problem:  there’s a gap between skills needed and the labor market.  We can’t snap are fingers and make hungry kids who can barely read into software engineers: even our great entrepreneurs usually had food on their table and some degree of stability.   So when I hear someone say “get a job” I also hear “you’re worthless, so why don’t you jut make your way to some labor camp and die.”  For the faithful, however, we say work is meaningful, but that does  still not determine God’s love for anyone or their intrinsic dignity.  God still loves the drunk. 

Last, the various programs were always meant to be a cheap alternative to a better solution: full employment.  A national program that actually financed the war on poverty as if it were an actual war might have been much more effective.  If we had spent the six trillion dollars we spent in Afghanistan and Iraq and instead provided the 12 million unemployed jobs at a middle class (about $75,000) wage for six years we would have strengthened the middle class.  The economic multiplier would have been enormous – because the unemployed tend to spend, the growth in GDP would multiplied at least ten times – and with such an expansion, we would have been able to balance the budget.  Ideally this would be part of rebuilding our massive infrastructure – construction remains one of the few industries that cannot be shipped overseas.  But we don’t have the political will, and it is far more expensive.  It’s easier to spend on war, and on a credit card.

Is there a dependent class?  Perhaps.  But I doubt we’re quite serious about getting people out of that “cycle.”  The poor are not organized – and many tend to vote against any sort of collective interest.  Occasionally you’ll find some poor person saying that they feel guilty for living on medicaid and food stamps. blaming some other person they know for being dependent.  They are ashamed of being poor, and many of them don’t like hand outs.  They’ll let themselves be punished because they’ve internalized the idea that they deserve their fate.  But the conservative class thinks they can just go out and start a business when they have no cash, no investors, and few skills.

We still have poverty, and we did fight a war.  But we thought we could fight it on the cheap.

Fighting the War in Afghanistan

After WWI, my grandfather was placed in an area of the British Empire called “The Northern Frontier.”  It’s on the border of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Then, as now, the empires – in this case Russia and England – were engaged in a rivalry known then as “The Great Game.”

The British had been suspicious that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan.  Russia wanted to dominate the continent the way Americans believed in “manifest destiny.” It resulted in a century long conflict between Russia and England that ended only during WWII.

My grandfather knew that the Tribal soldiers he encountered were some of the most fierce and courageous men he would ever fight.  He also knew of them as charitable hosts.

One evening he stumbled upon a camp.  There were several Afghan soldiers drinking tea around a fire; he was one.  They saw him and stood as he appeared out of thin air.  There was no question that if he pulled out his revolver, he would come out on the losing side.

Captain Ray (pronounced “Rai”) simply said, in Pashtun, “I’ve been hoping to find you.”  Best to treat the enemy as a friend.  Why don’t you sit down with us, they said.  Apparently, my grandfather apparently had a winning smile and a generous charism, so he spent the next couple days getting to know his enemies.

At the end, they led him safely back to his camp.  When the second world war ended, they would visit the house on Parliament Street with nuts and dates.  Apparently, they came by bicycle.  Enemies once, friends forever.

War offers a clarity that is exhilarating and profound – even sacred.  But it is the task of the gospel to shatter that clarity, to reveal the hidden interests, to expose war’s banality, to desacralize the chants and the cheers that send us into the battle.  The gospel reveals it all:  the marks of heroism, the reality of cowardice, the needless misery, the fruitlessness of honor and pride.  The gospel says, you’re really surprised that our friends are funding our enemies? You really think that the president will save us?  You really believe that this war will lead us mutual admiration and respectability?  Do you really think that the “best and the brightest” are made of a different character than the rest of us? You really think that if we leave we won’t still bear the consequences?  Really?  I’ve got news for you…

And this is the gospel truth:  as we demonize our enemies, we become more like them.  Yes – let us fight the glorious battle, but our armor of righteousness cannot be based on our moral superiority, but instead in our mutual humanity.

When we fight these wars, the gospel reminds us that we battle as sinners in need of redemption, not as heroes desperate for vindication.