Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Reason we Lost The War on Poverty

Just returned from appearing on a panel at the Road to Majority conference in Washington, DC, where I addressed "A New War on Poverty."
Pres. Lyndon Johnson with poor people in Kentucky, 1964

We now "celebrate" the 50th anniversary of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's original War on Poverty. And as I opened my talk: poverty won.

In fact, poverty flourishes. Of course, it can never disappear, not only because genuinely poor people will always exist--sidelined by disability, downturns, age or incompetence--but because "poverty lines" will always be drawn and adjusted.

Presently, earnings below $11,670 for an individual, $15,730 for two, $19,790 for three and $23,850 for four people defines official poverty.

But as a psychologist, I maintain that people who stay beneath those thresholds have a different mindset from those who leave poverty and move into higher economic status:
A long-term perspective leads to short-term poverty. A short-term perspective brings long-term poverty.

What that means is that people who see themselves in a temporarily squeezed situation that doesn't define them permanently, tend to use drive and vision to move up. Those with a "victim" mentality, feeling stuck, tend to live that self-fulfilling prophecy. In the present political climate, these people might resent "the 1%" who they assume selfishly hoard too much of a finite financial pie; they might then feel entitled to benefits from government to make up for a position inherited or "received" through no fault of their own.

It's the difference between the grad student living on a shoestring who self-identifies as a professional enduring temporary times of sacrifice, and someone who looks forward only to a nice meal when the government assistance check arrives.

I found this comment, originally from Gawker and quoted by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, most instructive:
"I make a lot of poor decisions; none of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don't pay a thing and a half this week, instead of just one thing?"

The writer continues, "I will never have large pleasures to hold onto; there's a pull to live what bits of life you can while there's still money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are, you'll be broke in three days anyway."

For such people, short term is all they envision, so they might as well enjoy now.

Compare that to Asian immigrants. Pew Research did, and began their report, "Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success..." This within a century of being "low-skilled, low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official
Amy Chua forces daughter to practice while on vacation

What's the difference? Ask Harvard professor Amy Chua, who became famous as the Tiger Mother who made her daughter stand outside in the cold for not sufficiently practicing her violin. The source of a long-term perspective is the family culture, the values that infuse everyone's expectations and behavior. Children learn what they see, and internalize the messages expressed and enforced. Work hard now, excel, accept only your best. How many individuals infused with those values end up in poverty?

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