The Intellectual Poverty of Richmond’s Poverty Report

by James A. Bacon

An anti-poverty commission appointed by Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones has produced a schizophrenic report recommending how to address poverty in the city. On the one hand, it proffers some common-sense proposals on how to help poor Richmonders find jobs and otherwise improve their condition. On the other, it advocates anesthetizing the poor from the need to find those very same jobs by expanding social safety net programs — food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Medicaid, and more aggressive “outreach” to ensure that low-income individuals get all the benefits they qualify for.

Such contradictions are inevitable, no doubt, from a commission that divvies up the job between six committees, each headed by a different chair reflecting very different views. But the consequence is a report that is uneven in quality and very often fights with itself.

One result of dueling philosophies is that the report abdicates meaningful discussion of the role of family structure — the dissolution of marriage and out-of-wedlock births — in causing poverty, even though, according to the report’s own data, the breakdown of the family is central to any understanding of poverty in the city.

While 25% of the city’s residents live in poverty, 39% of the city’s children do. That is a result of financial incentives and a welfare culture that encourages single women, often teenagers, to bear children whom they have no hope of supporting themselves. Yet the report largely ignores how the absence of fathers from the family contributes not only to material deprivation (although that is offset significantly by federal transfer payments) but moral/spiritual deprivation.

However, some commission members apparently do understand the critical need for intact families to raise children capable of becoming productive members of society. The report alludes to a split:

Some members of the committee favor making a public campaign on behalf of fatherhood and strengthening traditional two-parent families a prominent part of Richmond’s anti-poverty strategy. Other members of the committee have reservations about the wisdom and effectiveness of such an approach, and believe our focus should remain on improving the economic prospects of all types of households and families, and that public policy should generally respect the choices made by individuals under conditions of duress.

Think about that for a moment: Public policy should generally respect the choices made by individuals under conditions of duress. In other words, people can do any damn thing they want, abdicating responsibility for themselves and the children they bring into the world, and society has an obligation to mitigate the effects of their horrendous decisions.

As it happens, I am nearly finished reading, “Life at the Bottom,” by Theodore Dalrymple, who describes how the pathological behavior of poor (predominantly white) Englishmen dooms them to dependency, violence, substance abuse, fractured families and purposeless, meaningless lives. Dalrymple argues that the dysfunction stems largely from (a) a welfare state that relieves people of taking responsibility for themselves and (b) a pervasive moral relativism, first articulated by English elites and since embraced by members of the underclass, that discourages anyone from rendering judgment against atrocious, self-vitiating behavior. A similar relativism appears to infect authors of this report as well.

That’s not to deny that Richmond’s poor face very real problems accessing jobs. There is a real spatial mismatch between where the poor live and where the jobs are located. There is a mismatch, too, between the skills acquired in K-12 schools and the demands of the workplace. The stigma associated with incarceration poses an acute problem, especially for young black men. It is exceedingly difficult even for motivated people to elevate themselves from poverty, and anyone with an ounce of compassion should feel moved to help them.

Unfortunately, the manner in which society has chosen to help had had a corrosive effect on the objects of compassion. Many remedies called for in this report simply extend or amplify the same measures attempted over the last 60 years, all to little avail, as family structures disintegrate and dependency deepens. Despite some good ideas and some useful research, the poverty commission settles for more of the same. By skipping over the dissolution of the family structure and ignoring the critical importance of personal responsibility, this report is a recipe for perpetuating poverty, not eliminating it.

5 Responses to The Intellectual Poverty of Richmond’s Poverty Report

  1. If you’re the GOP and you believe there is a better way and you wanted to lead and govern what message would you bring to these folks so that they’d elect you and expect you to lead the way to a better life for them?

    These “poverty” groups that advocate more and more entitlements exist in part because there is a vacuum – politically.

    time for the GOP to go beyond talking-the-talk and get their tails out to walk-the-walk.

    Let’s hear their message to the poor and downtrodden and how to bootstrap you way out.

  2. One of the things that REALLY BOTHERS ME about the “loyal opposition” to the “entitlement mentality” is the lack of a competitive alternative offered by those who oppose the “liberal” approach.

    it seems that the “loyal opposition” is more opposition than a real agenda or vision for a “Conservative”, personal responsibility, family values – approach to the opposed “liberal” way of dealing with the kinds of problems alluded to here.

    The non-Dem approach seems to be essentially ” this is a bad approach, stop it”.

    What we need from the Conservatives are genuine, legitimate, workable ideas and thoughts about how to “fix” places like Richmond rather than spend thousands, millions of words regaling us with why the liberal approach is so bad.

    Compassionate Conservatism? that phrase, well intended on it’s original formation – basically says reams about Conservatism – that it’s basically not responsible for actually dealing with the issues – just being “compassionate” about how they tolerate it.

    It’s time for Conservatives to walk-the-walk on issues like this and stop blaming Dems for pandering to the “takers” – as if the “takers” somehow are not real Americans or even real people.

  3. The first step in figuring out how to deal with poverty — especially long-term, inter-generational poverty — is to understand the reality of the situation.

    The second step is to stop making the problem worse.

    The third step, we have to wean the long-term, inter-generational poor from their dependence on welfare. That’s fine to say in the abstract. How we accomplish that without devastating the children of the poor, who are innocents, is the great dilemma. I have not studied the issue closely enough to have the answer.

  4. Jim:

    Your points are well taken. However, poverty and dependence in Virginia is not contained to Richmond or any other city. Here are the statistics from Lee County, VA:

    “About 20.3% of families and 22.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 30.10% of those under age 18 and 23.30% of those age 65 or over.”.

    For those who believe that questioning the effectiveness of entitlement programs for the poor is a sign of racism – Lee County is 96.3% white.

    In 2012, Romney received 71.4% of the vote in Lee County while Obama received 27%. In the City of Richmond, Obama got 77.1% of the vote to Romney’s 21.4%.

    I have always suspected that the societal issues that cause high rates of poverty in the inner cities are quite similar to the issues that cause high rates of poverty in the inner cities. Peter’s excellent book, “Thunder on the Mountain” provided some further evidence of this theory.

    If the Democratic Party in Virginia ever figures out how to translate its ability to buy votes in return for promises of more entitlements to rural Virginia it will be game, set, match for the RPV.

    On the other hand, the RPV is actually engaged in its own version of entitlement pimpery. The RPV focuses on regional wealth transfers instead of the Democrats’ focus on personal wealth transfers.

    There is an interesting quote of disputed origin that seems to place the United States (and Virginia) at the point we find ourselves in our national history:

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”.

  5. I happen to believe in individual responsibility, fiscal responsibility and in general the right – and the duty of each individual to provide for themselves and their family.

    I was taught that there is no greater shame than taking charity, much less government hand-outs unless one was so seriously disabled and unable to care for themselves that the reality was that others would help – but dignity was preserved.

    I do not consider FICA-paid, individual mandates – nor pension benefits earned as an employee as “hand outs” but I DO consider welfare, MediAid, Schips, SNAP, etc as hand outs but a lesser evil than having people live in cardboard boxes under bridges or in thousands of such hovels lining the hillsides of a city – like we see in 3rd world – and even some industrialized countries.

    So I BELIEVE in the self-avowed Conservative principles that are espoused but those principles are not implemented into real policies that really do help people bootstrap their way out of circumstances where there are hand-outs and all factors in play, considered, it’s easier to take the hand-out than climb out.

    So I eschew the far left entitlement mentality but I abhor how the Conservatives “lead” on this issue. They come across more as uncaring knuckle-dragging cretins than true champions of core conservative principles.

    The Conservatives basically blame the left but bring little to the table themselves other than a nasty and look-down-your nose attitude towards those in lesser circumstances.

    Where is the “tough love” version of Conservative philosophy on entitlements?

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