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America's real problem is with spiritual poverty

Barry Fagin Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:50 am

The poverty problem in America has been solved. If you want to talk about poverty of the spirit, inequality of wealth, inequality of opportunity, or inequality of happiness, fine. But "poverty," in the sense of not having the basic material needs for life, just isn't much of an issue in America any more.

I base this on the latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau, released this month. Census takers go out of their way to interview the poor, because the results have significant economic and political consequences. The data are, to the say the least, eye-opening.

For example, the following material goods are owned by at least 80 percent of households living below the poverty line: Cellphone, microwave, refrigerator, television, air conditioner, and stove. More than half of households living below the poverty line have a computer, washer and dryer. Many of these things were unattainable luxuries for most people below the poverty line when I was growing up. Still others didn't even exist.

What of the homes where these goods are kept? 94 percent of households in the lowest quintile reported that they were satisfied with their housing. They ought to be, since the amount of living space for Americans below the poverty line is greater than that of the average European. That's the average European, not a poor one.

The census also asked about specific hardships that people experienced. These include "phone disconnected", "unpaid utilities", and "unpaid rent or mortgage". These are, as the young people say, first world problems.

What America has is not a poverty problem, but other social problems that we call "poverty." This is done for political reasons, because getting support for anti-poverty programs is much easier than getting support for fighting the other social problems. Those problems are much harder to solve. Passing laws and redistributing wealth can't do much about them.

For one, material well-being isn't enough for human beings to be happy. People require a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and a sense of their own value. They want to know their life has meaning and purpose, that the future will better, that their lives have dignity and worth. For many in society's lowest quintile, their material needs are taken care of, but these other needs are not. Nor, I would argue, is the federal government capable of providing them.

More perniciously, the once clear difference between "poverty" and "inequality" in modern discourse is now gone. Nowadays, when people talk about poverty, they mean inequality. Someone is "poor" and is entitled to social benefits if they do not have access to a standard of living within some fraction of the national average. What should that fraction be? It depends on how socialist you are.

Note that this idea is very different from a minimal standard of physical safety and well-being for all Americans, an idea that most Americans support. The confusion of poverty with inequality implies a relative standard, one that moves upward as capitalism makes America wealthier. If you're a liberal, you may think such a standard is a hallmark of a just society. Fine and good, that's a debate worth having. But don't hide that social goal under the cloak of "fighting poverty". That's intellectually dishonest.

The American under class has tremendous social problems. Children born out of wedlock. Single-parent families. A sense of hopelessness. A lack of opportunity. A lack of economic mobility. A sense of entitlement. Incentive structures and legal barriers that encourage dependence and keep a wealthier future out of reach. Unemployed, rootless young men who are more likely to be incarcerated and die violently. These and others are vital, pressing issues that ought to demand the attention and action of all people of goodwill.

But they are not the same thing as poverty. Until we recognize that we're being sold a bill of goods in the name of "fighting poverty," we'll continue to be stuck with a poverty of ideas.

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Barry Fagin is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. The views expressed here are his own. Readers can contact Dr. Fagin at barry@faginfamily.net.

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