Who deserves to be poor?
Asked that way, the question invites a personal value judgment that does not lend itself to objective analysis. But posed another way -- who should get taxpayers' help to escape poverty? -- the question informs social policy, and political demagoguery, at all levels of government.
A recent Block News Alliance special report, "Poverty & Politics," examines how the national debate over poverty shapes, and is shaped by, our definitions of freedom, community, and mutual responsibility. The debate occurs against the backdrop of growing income inequality in America -- the focus of the Occupy movement -- and popular disdain for government spending and regulation, the Tea Party's preoccupations.
These discussions are anything but academic in Toledo. One recent scholarly study concluded that over the past decade, concentrated, extreme poverty has grown more quickly in this community -- central city and suburbs -- than in any other major U.S. metropolitan area. Another report ranks Toledo near the top in its growth of residential segregation by family income. That's nothing to cheer.
Too often, debates over poverty are tied, deliberately or otherwise, to considerations of race and ethnicity. But libertarian sociologist Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart, describes a growing gap between wealthier Americans who adhere to traditional national values -- marriage, two-parent families, productive work, educational attainment, church attendance -- and poorer ones who do not. All of the Americans Mr. Murray studies are white.
Few Americans, we suspect, would deny help to someone who has plunged into economic need because of an unexpected disaster: the loss of a job, a home foreclosure, ruinous expenses caused by a medical emergency. The economy, although it is slowly improving, still condemns large numbers of our neighbors to such straits.
Some politicians argue that extended unemployment benefits encourage malingering, and that foreclosure is a just outcome for people who bought more house than they could afford. Yet opinion polls suggest that most Americans take a more tolerant attitude toward those who fall into the safety net. And few Americans, we hope, would seek to punish children for the perceived failings of their parents or other adults who supposedly are responsible for them.
At the same time, we doubt that many Americans would define public assistance as an acceptable way of life, especially over generations. It is reasonable to demand a showing of personal responsibility and initiative in return for aid: acceptance of an offered job, enrollment in school or a work-training program, treatment to overcome substance abuse.
So why does the debate over poverty, like so many other political issues these days, get conducted at the extremes rather than in the center? Why can Republican political candidate Newt Gingrich call President Obama "the food-stamp president" and think he's won the argument? Why does so much of the dialogue on the left boil down to claims of victimization and entitlement?
Part of it is the perception, and often the reality, that poor Americans do not vote at the same rate as wealthier ones. Part of it is simple denial: Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, cites survey data showing that more than 40 percent of Social Security beneficiaries, people who collect unemployment compensation, and Medicare recipients insist they never used a government social program.
There is a point at which huge disparities in wealth become obstacles not only to social stability but also to economic growth. At the very least, federal policy should not allow those gaps to grow, whether through unwarranted tax cuts for the richest Americans or a failure to update the minimum wage.
But tax and social policy also should encourage work and education rather than perpetuate dependency. That means adequate public investment in such things as child care for working mothers, job training for low-skilled workers, and transportation options for low-income ones. Such things are not indulgences but part of the package.
What Mr. Murray calls America's "civic culture" is based on a sense of mutual obligation: that no one who plays by the nation's economic and social rules will be condemned to poverty. It's essential to Americans' shared future that those obligations are met, on both sides.