November 17, 2022

Are We Really Helping the Poor?

Poverty is much like the common cold. It has always been and will aways be with us. In some cases it is avoidable. In others it is not.

By Mark W. Fowler

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Despite the claims of elites and politicians seeking to castigate their opponents, very few Americans really want anyone to remain in poverty. Democrats frequently assail Republicans by claiming they want to push grandma off a cliff to save money or oppose a minimum wage to keep people poor. This is nonsense. When one prospers, all prosper. When one suffers, all suffer to some degree. I would rather all neighborhoods have ample housing, clean streets, and homes full of well-fed, well-clothed inhabitants. I would prefer all jobs pay appropriately. Most people agree.

But finding the path from utopia to reality is difficult. My professional life has been spent helping the poor. As a lawyer, I represented individuals charged with crimes who could not afford lawyers. I never encountered anyone who claimed to have stolen a loaf of bread because they were hungry. Acts of theft occurred because of a desire to get something for nothing. Occasionally, shoplifting occurred as a distraction from a sense of hopelessness in the context of an unhappy life. This was rare.

Only a few of those I represented had medical reasons for not working. Most were able-bodied with sporadic work histories and a low level of motivation. Some had issues with substance abuse, mostly alcohol, and most of them had records of alcohol-related crimes. One had a habit of passing bad checks for the purpose of buying more alcohol. He had no real interest in providing for his family.

Some charged with theft were particularly malignant, stealing not for sustenance but to grab a windfall or dominate others. I recall a defendant who had stolen thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry from a family-owned store, only to throw his merchandise in a ditch to avoid apprehension. It was never recovered. A pair of brothers burglarized the home of a retired beautician whom they deemed “rich.” She was awakened by their presence. Inasmuch as they had done some yard work for her, the older brother claimed she recognized them and proceeded to bludgeon her to death with a pipe wrench. They sold a handful of costume jewelry not worth more than $15 to a fence. The fence, having discovered homicide was involved, promptly turned them over to authorities. The father of these two approached me and wanted me to attempt to recover “his” log splitter given to him by his unemployed son. It never occurred to him how this unemployed son with no assets at all produced a log splitter worth several hundred dollars. It was stolen, of course. Situational awareness seemed not to exist in this family. What did exist was a sense of entitlement, specifically an entitlement to the property of others who had earned their way. The point is that some individuals do not act rationally or cannot understand the costs of their chaotic behavior. They don’t need social workers or understanding. What they need is a sharper sense of their obligations and the importance of the rights of others.

There are those who are poor because they choose not to work or spend their money unwisely. I have seen my fair share of heavily tattooed and pierced patients in the emergency room who spent hundreds of dollars they could not afford on “luxuries.” There are those who are poor because of unique personal circumstances; health issues, learning disabilities, and injuries are frequently associated with their poverty. Thomas Sowell observed that predictors of poverty included not finishing high school and having children out of wedlock. Avoiding those pitfalls alone would decrease the likelihood of becoming poor.

Poverty is much like the common cold. It has always been and will aways be with us. In some cases it is avoidable. In others it is not. The United States government has spent trillions fighting poverty since the 1930s. We are obligated as a society to be kind and generous to those whose fortunes prevent them from caring for themselves. But we are also obligated to embrace an ethos that encourages self-reliance, thrift, work, and personal responsibility.

Each able-bodied person has the societal obligation to earn his/her way so that the common expenses of infrastructure can be maintained and contribute to a sufficient surplus for the poor. This should be done from revenue, not deficit spending. There is no right of the able-bodied to refuse to work and live at another man’s expense. Thus, there is no right to housing, transportation, nutrition, or medical care for those able but refusing to work. St. Paul had this right: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” On the other hand, the difficult question is to what extent the working poor should be given assistance.

There are also other mutual societal obligations. Political elites ought not castigate the rich simply for being rich. They should refrain from creating the impression that the rich do not pay their fair share. They do. The top 10% of wage earners pay 71% of federal income taxes. The elites ought not create the impression that most rich people became rich by stealing or oppressing others. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and most billionaires became rich by creating something that others were willing to pay for. Bill and Hillary Clinton and Joe and Hunter Biden became rich by selling influence. Theirs is a behavior worthy of condemnation.

Too many politicians at the federal level spend too much time arguing over how to spend the money of hardworking taxpayers. They are much less interested in how effectively this money is spent than they are in whether their support for such a program will benefit their chances for reelection. It is easy to be generous with someone else’s money. It is hard for a politician to say no to requests to provide assistance when votes might be garnered by saying yes. Politicians speak of “fighting for the poor” when what they really mean is they were discussing spending more of someone else’s money over coffee or drinks.

About half of households now receive some sort of federal payment including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the like. Joe Biden just added more recipients with student loan forgiveness and subsidies for electric vehicles, both of which are undeserved transfers of wealth.

What happens when we run out of money?

Handouts make politicians feel virtuous. A hand-up is far more valuable.

Mark W. Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified physician. He can be reached at [email protected]

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