Monday, February 18, 2008

Instead of Demonizing the Poor, End Poverty

In his column in the NY Times today, "Poverty is Poison," Paul Krugman takes on a number of myths that have been used to demonize the poor and those who argue for the moral correctness and the feasibility of eliminating poverty.

Krugman shows:

1. Poverty brings with it life circustances that can affect not just the quality of education but the actual neurological capacity to learn.

He writes: "neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty."

2. The War on Poverty of the 1960s did alleviate poverty to a significant degree, contrary to often repeated myth. Poverty rates were 23% in 1963 and went down to 14% by 1969. He implies much of this was due to the War on Poverty although he is not clear on the contribution from other factors, such as economic growth, anti-discrimination policies, etc. The poverty rate has since climbed, however, after demonizing assaults on such programs, most famously Ronald Reagan's demonizing attacks on Cadillac driving "welfare queens." In 2006 it stood at 17.4%.

3. One reason for the lack of attention to poverty is the idea that America is a land of meritocracy, where all can succeed through proper discipline and effort.

Krugman writes, however:

"the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.
That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step. . .
in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents."

4. Targeted programs in Europe have had success in mitigating poverty. Government programs can work.

Conclusion: Rather than demonizing the poor or their advocates, it is time for the richest nation on earth to put the shame of poverty behind us. Poverty can be alleviated if not eliminated if we have the will to do so. In this presidential year, John Edwards deserves our thanks for putting this issue on the political agenda of candidates Clinton and Obama, and the rest of us.

To read his column in its entirety go to: Poverty is Poison.

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