by James A. Bacon
Life is hard on poor people, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy tells us in a new special report, “The High Cost of Being Poor in Virginia.” While the number of poor Virginians declined to 11.2% in 2015, considerably below the national average, poor people still get a raw deal. They pay more for food. They pay a higher percentage of their incomes for housing. They pay late fees for unpaid rent and many get evicted. Those who work benefit from fewer vacation and sick day — when they can afford child care, which often they can’t — and are victimized by wage theft. They pay onerous interest rates on payday loans and other debt, which traps them in a cycle of of indebtedness.
On the other hand, the Virginia Interfaith Center acknowledges, the poor do receive substantial welfare benefits — low-income refundable tax credits, food stamps, rent subsidies, child care subsidies, child care assistance, and Medicaid, among the most important federal entitlements. (The poor also benefit from other programs such as free cell phones, energy relief, food kitchens, and charitable initiatives too numerous to mention, none of which the Center acknowledges.)
So, what’s the answer? More entitlements and regulations, of course. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Increase food stamp benefits. Expand Medicaid. And enact more regulations: Crack down on payday lenders, raise the minimum wage and compel employers to pay for more vacation and sick days.
“As Election Day draws nearer, we should be thinking hard about our priorities as a nation,” states the report. “Reducing poverty and the high costs of being poor clearly should be a top priority.”
In other words, the Virginia Interfaith Center offers the same bromides used to justify Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty some 50 years ago, impervious to the many unintended consequences and the utter failure, after the expenditure of trillions of dollars, to eradicate poverty. The logic is brain-dead simple: Poverty is a condition of material deprivation. If people are poor, give them more money.
As Robert Rector with the American Enterprise Institute points out, however, the material living conditions of America’s poor are enviable by the standards of most other countries. Forty-three percent of poor people own their own homes. Eighty percent enjoy air conditioning. Nearly three-quarters own a car. Ninety-seven percent own a color television; more than half own two. Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens. Only two percent respond to the American Community survey that they “often” do not have enough to eat.
The American welfare state has ameliorated material poverty, but the worst part about being “poor” in America today is not material want. It is social dysfunction, or what some might call “spiritual” poverty. The poor are more likely to suffer from domestic violence and child neglect. They are more likely to engage in substance abuse. The poor learn less at school, and are more likely to drop out. Poor women are more likely to bear children out of wedlock and at an earlier age. The poor are less likely to get married, and more likely to suffer mental illness. They are more likely to engage in criminal activity — and more likely to be victims of it. And poor men are less likely to participate in the workforce and more likely to seek disability, even though work is far less demanding physically than a half century ago.
Social dysfunction does not arise from material deprivation. How do we know this? Because many measures of social breakdown are much worse than they were, say, 80 years ago during the Great Depression when material conditions and insecurity were far worse. We also know that social dysfunction comes from causes other than material deprivation because we see dysfunction creeping up the socioeconomic ladder to America’s working class and middle class.
The authors of the Virginia Interfaith Center have a very pinched view of poverty. While there are undoubtedly things that Virginia can do to ameliorate the pain of material poverty — I share the Center’s concerns about courts that trap people in poverty by taking away their drivers’ licenses, and would join in denouncing businesses that engage in wage theft — the problems that cause the greatest distress stem from spiritual poverty. One would think, given the spiritual nature of churches and other places of worship, that the authors might have shown a keener sense of the difference between material and spiritual poverty. Rather than advocating the expansion of the welfare state, perhaps the authors could accomplish more good by addressing the spiritual dimension of poverty.