Two Americas?

It was a beautiful day today, so I went for a long bicycle ride with three friends. We covered sixty one miles of the Connecticut countryside east of New Haven.

Nearly every pedal stroke took us past scenes of real, if understated, beauty. Spring is in full bloom, of course, and its colors are hardly understated, but the homes, farms and small towns that we rode past spoke of a quiet prosperity.

It struck me, though, that not too many miles to our west was New Haven, much of which presents a starkly different aspect. In that city’s poorer neighborhoods, you would think you were in a different country. I expect to walk through some of those neighborhoods on The Big Walk, which I hope will take place next month.

That there are two Americas is one of our President’s favorite themes. He is not wholly wrong (bet you never thought you would read that on Civil Horizon); he and I differ not on the diagnosis, but the prescription.  In short, he wants to take more from the folks whose homes we rode past today, and distribute it to poor people in New Haven (after the government eats a fair percentage of it). He is all about using the federal government to redistribute wealth.

In my view, his focus on wealth redistribution, rather than opportunity and wealth creation, ultimately shortchanges the very people he seeks to help, herding them into a separate and unequal culture. He distributes fish and discourages fishing.

The people whose homes we rode past today have jobs and mortgages and children. They pay their taxes and worry about how they’re going to afford college for the kids, let alone save enough for retirement. Few of them are wealthy enough to be beyond such worries, but most of them are grateful for the opportunities they have and proud of the choices that they have made. They are quite willing to help both their neighbors and society as a whole. They are charitable people.

I do not believe that our society divides neatly into the makers and the takers – almost all people surely want to do the best they can for themselves and their families. But we do have sharply different subcultures that teach very different lessons about how to do well – one is all about opportunity, the other about dependency. Our government set up the system that encourages the latter, and waters and feeds it.

The prosperous are not well off because they are oppressing the poor; quite the contrary, the taxes they pay subsidize the poor. The poor live in a world in which the ironic effect of governmental programs intended to help them is to encourage very different, and less productive, behaviors. Getting things from the government solves their immediate needs at the expense of encouraging dependency rather than independence, thrift and work. Dependency, and the habits it engenders, diminish both hope and the opportunity for genuine advancement. Do today’s poor have opportunities for real advancement? When they do, I suspect it is in spite of our government’s rules rather than because of them.

I am not saying that the poor are lazy; I am saying that they react rationally (as does almost everybody) to their circumstances. If, for the poor, the government effectively rewards out of wedlock births, and punishes marriage through taxation and the loss of otherwise-available benefits, family structures will degrade, as they have been doing since the commencement of the so-called War on Poverty. If the government punishes work through excessive taxation, and rewards those who have, or claim, no income, more will work off the books or at wholly illegal activities. These are not roads to one America, they are the ways that we will become ever more divided.

I am convinced that if we simply gave every poor person $100,000, but changed nothing else, two years later few would have meaningfully improved their lots. Actually, I can more or less prove it: as shown in this post, the US government’s non-defense spending amounts to what it would take to distribute $50,000 per person to the poorest 20 percent of the country every year. Now, that’s not quite fair, because all too much of that money is spent on the non poor, but you take my point: giving away more money is not the solution; rebuilding and extending an opportunity society is.


M. H. Johnston 6/1/14

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