Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tale of Two Cities

Myron Magnet has a powerful essay at City Journal in which he reacts to New York's liberal mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's claim that there are two New Yorks, one rich and one poor. Magnet argues that the actual divide is between New Yorkers who pay taxes and New Yorkers who live off of them. The whole article is good reading and it's fairly brief. Here's one of the best parts:
As its very name suggests, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s tale of two cities is pure fiction, a myth that formed the intellectual basis of leftist politics long before Marx turned it into “science.” Its key idea is that the rich are rich because they have somehow extracted their wealth from the poor, causing their poverty....

In the early days of industrialization, when nearly naked children pulled carts of coal through mine shafts and factory workers got ground up by unfenced machinery, this tale had a core of truth. But....[a]s for New York’s poor of today, there is not a scintilla of truth in the notion that the co-op dwellers of Fifth and Park Avenues have caused their poverty—not even if you believe that Wall Street hanky-panky is the cause of the deep unemployment America suffers five years after the outset of the financial crisis.

The trouble with the two-cities narrative is less that it is false and more that it has become a cause of the very poverty it pretends to explain—especially in the case of the minority poverty so prevalent in New York. The belief that people are poor because they are victims of economic injustice, and that the nation owes the African-American poor, in particular, some kind of reparation for the slavery and racism that supposedly has kept them perpetually poor, led to a War on Poverty that began half a century ago and that resulted in a welfare system that today, together with food stamps, public housing, and other benefits, provides its recipients with more income than a minimum-wage job, vaporizing the economic incentive for going to work.

Worse, the elite mindset that conceived the War on Poverty permanently transformed the nation’s culture in ways that entrenched the poor in their poverty. Thanks to the elites in the press, the government, and the universities—thanks to the writers, preachers, and teachers who have made “social justice” the reigning orthodoxy—the once standard belief that it’s dishonorable and unmanly not to work, at however menial a job, to support your family has given way to the view that there’s no shame in accepting reparations for victimization.

Combine these economic views with the change in elite views about sexuality that, also about 50 years ago, destigmatized casual sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing, and you have a sure-fire recipe for a caste of perpetually poor people, disproportionately minority, who rarely work or marry, and who form families headed by young, inexperienced, and ill-educated single mothers, poorly equipped to give children the moral and cognitive nurture, the thirst and drive for education they need to succeed in an increasingly skills-based global economy.

If you were going to divide New York into two cities—one rich, one poor—this would be the poor one: female-headed families living in housing projects or Section 8 apartments with flat-screen TVs and refrigerators stocked with food-stamp plenty, for generation after generation, whose unmotivated kids learn little from bad schools that cost more than almost any other public schools in the country—schools that only the most determined manage to learn enough from to escape the government-financed ghetto, leaving behind the average, ambitionless mass to become the parents of the next generation.

The rich New York would be exactly the opposite: people who get married and mostly stay married, who work hard to give their kids the best educational credentials and enrichment programs they can afford (alas, with a full measure of social-justice ideology and resume-burnishing social-service summer internships), who worship the work ethic, and who pay the taxes that support the other New York.

An observer from another planet would ask, Why does such a bizarre system go on, seemingly without end? Why does the rich New York keep supporting the poor New York, and why does the poor New York not improve its lot?
Magnet offers more insight at the link. His article highlights the fact that there's something odd about discussions of the poor and material poverty in the U.S. Most of the people who are classified as materially poor (there are types of impoverishment other than material deprivation) possess luxuries that even the wealthiest aristocrats as recently as a hundred years ago would have envied. Here's economist Thomas Sowell on the subject:
Most Americans living below the government-set poverty line have a washer and/or a dryer, as well as a computer. More than 80 percent have air conditioning. More than 80 percent also have both a landline and a cell phone. Nearly all have television and a refrigerator. Most Americans living below the official poverty line also own a motor vehicle and have more living space than the average European -- not Europeans in poverty, the average European.
He could have added that they also have access to medical care, food, and education. Their residences are dry and have indoor plumbing and heat. Their clothing is superior to even the finest raiment of a century ago, the air they breathe is cleaner, and the water they drink is purer. They are far richer than the wealthy of all but the most recent generations. So why do we call them "poor"? Sowell answers:
Because government bureaucrats create the official definition of poverty, and they do so in ways that provide a political rationale for the welfare state -- and, not incidentally, for the bureaucrats' own jobs.
The poverty that afflicts America is not material, it's spiritual, and for that sort of poverty there is no government program.