I have to admit that I don’t understand the “I am the 99%” shtick coming out of OWS. If these people are saying that 99% of the country is poor, with only 1% holding the wealth, perhaps I don’t understand poverty as well as I should. When I think of poverty, I think of this:
What I don’t think of when I think of poverty is this:
But in a peculiar way, those non-starving, non-homeless, non-refugee young people playing at being poor in cities across America have a point. They represent some very specific — and sad — types of poverty.
To begin with, there’s the sense of poverty created by utterly ludicrous expectations. We promised these kids that they were all “good enough, smart enough and, gosh darn it!, that everyone would like them.” We promised them that they were all number one, and that they would never need to make any actual effort to achieve that blue ribbon status. We taught them, through MTV and computer games, that a 3 minute attention span is sufficiently long to be awesomely cool and win the game. And, God help us, we taught them that a Womyn’s Studies, or Africana Studies, or GLBT Studies, or Oppressed People’s degree from some big name university would assure them the kind of job that would enable them to pay off $25,000 or $100,000 or even $250,000 in student loans. We, the older generation, created this wealth of stupidity.
These young people also suffer from a vast intellectual and moral poverty. One of the things that shines through when we interview the people taking to the streets is that so many are woefully ignorant, and that they wallow in a sea of relativism that allows for no morality other than that gained by intense navel gazing. They are the antithesis of the original American revolutionaries, whose leaders were men of exceptional erudition and thoughtfulness, and whose followers knew at the very least their Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. Revolutionaries of old were shaped by philosophy, known science, literature, practical life experience, and a deep sense of morality and justice. Today’s little park piddlers are shaped by an aching sense of unfairness, a terrible fear of human-kind (that would be the AGW shtick), and a morality shaped by Oprah and whichever fabulously rich Hollywood Leftist happens to grab the microphone on any given day.
These self-styled 99%-ers are not poor, not by any known standard, either today or in the history of the world. They are intellectually and emotionally bereft, but otherwise awash in material benefits.
The fact that these posers aren’t poor, as poverty has traditionally been understood, does not mean that there aren’t poor people in America. New immigrants are poor, although America quickly absorbs them and propels their children and grandchildren into the working and middle class. Elderly people whose life savings have been destroyed by the Democrat economy are poor, and deserve our help. Those who suffer from profound physical or mentally disabilities, through birth or injury, may experience great poverty, and they too deserve our help. Those are traditional kinds of poverty and, true to Jesus’ word, we will always have these people with us.
Lastly, there is a unique kind of poverty, one that could only occur in America. I know about this poverty because someone close to me dwells among these poor (although she is not quite of them), and reports back faithfully. These are not people who are poor in the old-fashioned way. They were not deprived of opportunities due to class distinctions, because we do not have a European-style class-based society. Although most are profoundly ignorant, all had available to them the basics of an American public school education. Living in the modern age, their lives have not been blighted by epidemic diseases (polio, rheumatic fever, mumps, measles, small pox, etc.), nor have their family structures been decimated by the mortality that ripped through the pre-modern world, leaving large numbers of children as half or full orphans.
What these people are is the self-inflicted poor. For example, meet my friend’s neighbors: there’s John, surviving on welfare and food stamps, who was a “tweeker” (methamphetamine user); Abby, who almost died from a month-long coma after a heroine binge, and now gets intermittent work cleaning houses, when her health allows; Ray, who is an alcoholic, and floats from one unskilled job to another; Shannon, who has three children, by three men, and has had all three children taken away by social services because of her drug habit. Oh, and let me not forget Fred, who is homeless because he fried his synapses both with drugs and with the head injury from a drunk driving accident. The only time he wasn’t homeless recently was when he spent two years in jail for statutory rape. As my friend said to him, “You’re old, ugly and homeless. The only reason a young girl hit on you was to get your drugs, and you should have known better.”
Again, Jesus was right “The poor ye always have with you.” No matter how much you perfect your society, you will still be dealing with human imperfection. You will deal with the people who came from dysfunctional homes and continue that dysfunction (with or without help from social services); and with the people who came from totally normal homes (as did my friend) but who were inexorably drawn to a dysfunctional culture. You cannot save them. They willingly embrace habits that lead inexorably to poverty. These are the HONDAs (hypertensive, obese, non-compliant, diabetic, alcoholics), who suck up a doctor’s clinic time; the over-dosers who are rushed into ER while the kid with the broken arm (and insurance) sits in the waiting room; and the drunk drivers whose irresponsibility tears apart families. They are the ones who crowd the welfare roles, live in parks, eat at the homeless shelters, and rotate through jails. They are the imperfect ones. We will always have them with us, and no amount of Leftist utopianism will change that reality.
History shows, though, that there is one solution to minimize the overall number of poor: a free, capitalist society. While there will always be the old, the sick and the stupid, our American experiment with freedom and capitalism creates sufficient plenty that even poor people, provided that they are functional poor rather than dysfunctional poor, can get sufficient calories, have housing, wear stylish clothes, carry a cell phone, watch television, etc. A rising tide lifts all boats, even the smallest dinghies.
Cross-posted at Bookworm Room