Letter: Addressing poverty will take courage, discussion

From: R. Andrew Robertson


In his recent comments, United Way of Bartholomew County President Mark Stewart mentioned something that deserves serious attention. I mean the “cliff effect,” also known as the “welfare trap.” This is the situation in which someone receiving government benefits cannot afford to take a pay raise because he will lose more in benefits than he gains in pay.

Many will be surprised to learn that the official poverty rate in the U.S. fell from 43 percent in 1940 to about 14.5 percent in 1965. In that latter year the so-called War on Poverty was launched – and progress halted. The official poverty rate today remains about 14.5 percent. How can that possibly be after 50 years of effort, dozens of government programs and trillions of dollars spent?

We can get a partial answer by examining a consumption-based poverty measure, which accounts for the value of government benefits. (The Official Poverty Measure does not.) On this scale the poverty rate is 4.5 percent. While we may take solace in that, it does mean that millions of able-bodied adults do indeed remain trapped in more or less permanent government dependency.

This is not the “hand up” that President Lyndon Johnson envisioned, and it does contribute to the inter-generational poverty that United Way hopes to tackle. It will be interesting to see what ideas that organization has for combating this hydra-headed monster.

Other seemingly intractable obstacles loom. They include the market’s pitiless rewarding of the more intelligent over the less, the extent to which intelligence is heritable, and the effects of growing up with a single parent. These are very delicate topics, and they generate such impassioned debate that some will shrink from it. We must have the courage to discuss them openly, though, if we are to be serious about human flourishing.