Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yglesias Gets it Right

Matthew Yglesias today makes an important but underappreciated point, namely that it's been known for some time that a lot of social dysfunction in the United States is related to our sky-high poverty rates.

A lot of right-wing commentary is devoted to pushing the thinly-veiled idea that poor Americans with certain ethnic backgrounds (that is, black and brown people) are inherently unworthy of a decent standard of living because they just aren't valuable enough members of society. In the end, though, that's a pretty bass-ackwards way of looking at things. We know that children who grow up in poverty are less likely to achieve in school or do any number of things that would put them in a position to contribute successfully to the economy.

So even if it were true, as white supremacists maintain, that American blacks will never be as successful per capitaas American whites because American whites are genetically superior, this still doesn't constitute a coherent reason not to try to eliminate poverty. It's a non-sequitor, quite apart from being ridiculous hate-based psudoscience with no grounding in objective fact.

Which leaves us to fall back on the more antiseptic, quasi-libertarian idea that the government shouldn't help people out of poverty because this constitutes stealing from rich people, which is immoral. But this only makes sense if you take a painfully static, short-run view of econonomic success. It may be true that raising taxes on a person who makes $250,000 per year puts that person in a worse financial situation next year, or for the next five years, or whatever.

But if a person making $250k/year pays a few extra thousand in taxes to support anti-poverty programs for a few years and this results in more effective schools (because poor kids are hard to educate), cleaner, safer cities (because poverty brings with it a lot of squatting, property crime, etc.) and lower health insurance premiums (because poor people get sick more), it's pretty easy to see that at a certain level of progressivity you can make sure that the welfare state actually provides pretty good value for the vast, vast majority of the population. It's still a bad deal for the odd super-rich person who never desires to visit anywhere that is currently beset by poverty-related problems, but for the other 99.9% of the population, anti-poverty programs are a much better value than most of the other roles of government.

3 comments:

Bad Mumsy said...

I'd be happy if the $250K person would invest $250 (no K) in school supplies and teaching materials for my students. And if the extra monies could be spent to hire enough teachers so we didn't have 30 kids in a classroom made for 20. but kids get discouraged and by 9th grade, they've already dropped out in their heads, if not in their bodies.
It's exhausting.
And something the $250k'ers would never do.
Not even for another $250

Raul Groom said...

Well, I am sure that would help. But honestly I think that the weight of scholarly evidence is pretty clear that fully funding schools (which, of course, we should do anyway in the meantime) is only part of the picture.

It's much cheaper and more effective to provide the social infrastructure necessary to keep kids out of poverty than it is to try to educate kids who did grow up in poverty. Kids who grow up in poverty show up in public school lacking basic school readiness skills that make it possible for them to succeed. To the degree that we can ameliorate this with education policy per se, we obviously should do so.

But eventually you have to address the underlying disparity in socioeconomic background.

Uncle Kevin said...

I frequently have to point out to many of the more conservative leaning folks with whom I work that we fund social programs because it is in OUR better interests. It isn't a "transfer of wealth" anymore than building a road (or funding a major military technology program). It is interesting but true that it is easier to convince these supposed "values voters" of the need for these programs if I couch it in terms of self interest, as oppose to moral responsibility.