Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Decoding the Numbers on Poverty

Business Columnist Steve Pearlstein writes in the Washington Post on the latest statistics on US poverty. This is an insightful column in summing up the perspectives from the right and the left.

He acknowledges that both sides have valid arguments but they are carried too far. Yes, the less wealthy have historical reasons as to why they remain that way (slavery) and present reasons (lack of opportunity or resources). And yes, it's also due to Government doing things the wrong way (welfare) and lack of discipline. While one places the emphasis on the responsibility of the society to uplift the poorer sections of itself, the other exhorts the individuals to rise above themselves. Pearlstein also talks about the fact that a very poor individual may find herself givig up any idea of economic or social resurgence because it seems beyond her reach. A $100 bill found on the street, for instance, will not pay for college, so she may blow it up on various intoxicants. The logic outrages most people, but this is true. I've seen this among the slum-dwellers in India and I see it here in the US. The individual is responsible primarily for his upliftment. At the same time, the society cannot sit by and let these people decline. Welfare as we know it may have alleviated some misery but it isn't going to solve the problem effectively. There is merit to the individual emphasis argument.

Interestingly the only non-argument that Pearlstein comes up with is that in order to motivate people to work or learn or pull themselves together into social behaviours that will keep them out of poverty, they need to get into a financial sweetspot between $24,000 and $96,000 median income. Beyond this maxima or minima, he concludes, complacence may set in.

Christianity has of course always focused on the individual. Even the society's role in encouraging the weaker brethren is primarily a role of the individuals within the society, not the role of legislation or force. As a democratic society though, the US legislates (in theory) what the majority of individual citizens want. And hence, it is an indication of the individual inclination to improve the lot of people around the individual. Here lies the rub (as far as I'm concerned): the American dream, the pursuit of "life, liberty and happiness", the motivation to succeed, achieve, earn and spend is often contrary to the ideal to giving money away to someone else. On the one hand we want individuals to behave well, have social, economic and civic goals; on the other we encourage them to be selfish. That dilemma cannot be solved through economic legislation. The human heart needs to be changed. All Christians know that.

What can we do to make sure the Government does the right things to improve the capability or propensity of the people to achieve, succees, learn and be productive? Surely more by providing tools rather than the finished product. The finished products will leave us (as is happening now) with net consumers, not producers. Education is compulsory but sub-par in several poor neighbourhoods, the investment into teaching far less than needed. Opportunities for business reserved for minorities and historically under-utilized businesses, but no pro-active measures to impart business training to them or anyone else. There are no targeted programs for the poorer sections for these issues. No proper counseling for their emotional and mental trauma. A society that cares should count all of this as it legitimate cost in enabling all of us to succeed. Above all, as with 'reservations' in India, affirmative action in the US is more politicized than it is scientifically administered. Is there propoer measurement for how well it is succeeding? Is there a specific timeline for achieving metrics that are defined to eradicate the effect of past injustices? Is there a timeline to phase out affirmative action in the future? If it goes on indefinitely, it will only serve to create a pampered, net-consumer class of people who uneduc ated, un-motivated, uncultured wastrels (no offence meant, here- I'm a minority myself). Such a directionless program will also eventually create reverse discrimination and foster a new inequality.

The same goes for India. The issue of reservations is so shabbily discussed by both ends of the argument, and the rea concerns seldom addressed. And to make it worse, it is purely political. There is no other motivation to it and this makes it more dangerous than the US situation.

No comments: