Poverty Shouldn’t Be a Political Football

Poverty is a state of being – not a political football. For Democrats it means another voting block to control with promises of a better life and delivery of nothing – poverty continues at virtually the same rate today as it did fifty plus years ago when then-President Lyndon Johnson (D) declared “the war on poverty” in 1964. For the next fifty years the government, mostly at the behest of Democrats spent over $22 Trillion on welfare programs without making a dent in the level of poverty. The Republicans have gone along with these programs out of fear or an alternative that they have the courage to support. The Democrats have indentured the poor as a means of increasing power, and for the Republicans the poor mean an irritant that they hope money will make go away.

Until poverty is dealt with as a state of being, rather than a political football, there will never be an acceptable or productive solution.

Which brings me to probably the most intelligent thing I have ever stumbled across in my aging life. As a young lawyer in Montana, one of my duties to my clients was to represent them before the state legislative and administrative agencies. In my first year lobbying I met a young lawyer from Bozeman, Montana, serving his first term in the state legislature. Because the Montana legal community was so small, as lawyers we knew most all of the other lawyers and if not directly within one degree of separation. We had a lot in common and we and our spouses became fast friends. But there was a difference, John was a Democrat and I was, even at that young age, a conservative. We were sitting in the anteroom of the House one afternoon listening to a jabberwocky debate over some pointless resolution and our conversation led to a discussion about political philosophy where we discovered that there wasn’t much difference in our views.

I asked him then why he was a Democrat. He replied that in America there were more poor than there were rich and that “if we didn’t find a way to take care of the poor they would simply come and forcibly take it all away from the rich.” A stable society simply had to care for the poor. That is a recognition of poverty as a state of being.

As the political parties become more polarized there is today even less chance of finding a solution. It is not good enough to dismiss the problem with a declaration that the “poor are always with us.” That statement is incomplete and taken out of context. In Matthew 26:10 as Jesus is anointed by a woman from a village through which he is passing:

“…Aware of this, Jesus asked, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful deed to Me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. By pouring this perfume on Me, she has prepared My body for burial.…”

The Reverend Billy Graham put that statement into context:

“You’re probably thinking of Jesus’ words in John 12:8: ‘You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ His words were directed at Judas (who would soon betray Him), admonishing him because he was more interested in getting money for himself than in serving Jesus.

“But Jesus wasn’t saying we shouldn’t fight poverty or help those in need–not at all. He was only giving a description of the way the world actually is, not the way it should be. The Bible repeatedly commands us to help the needy, and condemns those who take advantage of the poor. God told His people in the Old Testament, ‘I command you to be openhanded toward … the poor and needy in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jesus told His disciples to “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33).”

And that in a nutshell is the status of the poor in America. The Republicans more or less ignore them, and the Democrats take advantage of them by trading welfare payments for political support.

A solution to poverty begins with acknowledgement that the poor are not monolithic. There is no one cause for poverty. However, you can speak of the causes of poverty in several broad categories:

 Poverty due to mental or physical limitations.
 Poverty due to a lack of education or training
 Poverty due to a lack of job opportunities
 Poverty due to domestic obligations (caring for family members)
 Poverty due to indolence
 Poverty due to preference

Whatever the particular mechanism is for each of the first four categories, just handing the victims money is hardly the solution. In each instance the goal of any program should be a definable increase in societal productivity. That productivity can take any form whether it means an increase in the ability of the victim to care for himself (lessened dependence) all the way up to removal of barriers to compete in the job market. The details of such efforts should be left to experts in concert with the victims.

When it comes to the last two categories, life should have consequences. If you are unwilling to work despite the availability of employment then you will starve and die. If you are unwilling to take shelter then you will freeze and die. If you are unwilling to deal with your own personal hygiene you will experience disease and pestilence and die.


1. The efforts for the first four categories will require fiscal assistance. However, the form of fiscal assistance that we have provided over the last half century have proven to be inefficient and often counterproductive. Generational dependency on welfare payments has become a way of life. The real beneficiary has become an entrenched bureaucracy with its accompanying public employee unions. The bureaucracy feeds itself first and its intended beneficiaries become afterthoughts.

In contrast, reputable private organization engaged in social services deliver about 85 percent of their funding to the intended beneficiaries. The reason for that high percent of delivery is that these private organizations compete for funds. The efficiency of delivery and resulting progress become the primary drivers for new and recurring donations. People tend to be more cognizant of the effects of their charity than does the government. A better solution would to be to allow taxpayers to receive a tax credit for a percentage of their contributions. Mind you that this is a tax credit and thus reduces the amount to government funded welfare programs. The state of Arizona has a program allowing a similar tax credit for donations to public or private school foundations. It works remarkably well and reduces the demand for general fund resources for education. It creates a rare instance where a taxpayer can control how educational spending is directed and it forces schools to improve performance in order to attract donations.

2. Technology advancements can be a wonderful thing but much of it adversely effects the poor through the elimination of low pay employment. Take for instance the Golden Arches – McDonald’s. As demands for minimum wage have taken hold among the politicians, McDonald’s has an increasing introduction of kiosks in their restaurants – computer screens that allow you to order your food without human interaction. The first and only time you may engage a human being is when you pick up your order. Elsewhere in the food industry technology is replacing those who cook the food – computer controlled mechanization can stamp out a burger, place it on the grill, turn it on a standard interval and deliver it on to a bun. The same can be said for Burger King’s flame broiled burgers. Soft drinks are already poured with precision by a computer controlled mechanized unit.

The point is that before government decisions are made regarding wages, some additional thought should be given to its impact on wage earners. A job at $10.00 per hour is better that no job at $15.00 per hour. But more importantly that type of thinking opens up avenues for bringing the poor back into the workforce. A good instance could be had in Portland. Portland is a once beautiful city whose edifices have been desecrated by increasing hordes of street kids and homeless transients. The town reeks of urine, excrement and vomit as they use the streets, sidewalks and fountains as their preferred latrines. Cleaning this filth can be mechanized as it is to a certain extent but creating jobs for cleaning the city as a condition of receiving welfare support for those capable would be a better solution. Not only would the city benefit but it would be educational about the benefits of personal hygiene. Using private charities under contract to manage these programs would eliminate the inefficient bureaucracy that performs them currently at the direction of public employee unions. You can build your own list of jobs and benefits that could be undertaken for the benefit of the city.

3. This is where the challenge falls to you. If you can acknowledge that what we have done to date is not working, then what is it that you would propose to improve the state of being impoverished? We have an obligation to care for the poor, the sick and the children – they will always be with us, often as a reminder of our obligations. The life you save may well be the next Ben Carson – world famous neurosurgeon, presidential candidate and cabinet secretary.

If you want to change poverty, change the way you think about it.