The 2010 poverty level in the U.S., we learned on Tuesday, is the highest it has been since 1993. In 2010, about one in six Americans lived below the poverty line.[fn1] In June, 14.6% of Americans received food stamps.[fn2] To some extent, the high poverty rate is probably related to the high unemployment rate, which was 9.1% in August.
I throw out all of these numbers to suggest that, as a society, we have a problem. That problem needs to be fixed. And we, as Mormons, undoubtedly have something that we can bring to the discussion of how to fix it. As I think about how we can fix poverty, though, I’m hugely influenced by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill’s book Creating an Opportunity Society.[fn3]
Haskins and Sawhill point out that Americans care about desert.[fn4] That is, as Americans, we want those who have the ability to work for a living. And I’m interested in this idea of desert. Because I’m not convinced that we have a religious dispensation to withhold assistance from those don’t somehow “deserve” our help.[fn5]
Still, as a practical matter, irrespective of whether we have religious dispensation or not, we care about desert. And no social program that is blind to to recipients’ refusal to work is going to go anywhere. As a pragmatist, then, I have to confront desert. But, as we consider how to provide aid to those to whom we have the political will to aid, I want to keep two things in mind:
(1) Notwithstanding our cultural faith in Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches is not the norm in America. You are much more likely to end up in roughly the same economic condition as the family you were born into. 42 percent of the children of families in the bottom quintile of income themselves end up in the bottom quintile of income as adults, twice the percentage that would be expected to end up there by chance.[fn7] And only 6 percent of Americans move from the bottom quintile to the top quintile.[fn8]
So Americans’ socioeconomic movement is limited. And this limited mobility between socioeconomic classes suggests that some portion of our economic success or failure is a result of the situation in which we were born, not of anything for which we were responsible. This is not to deny our ability or need to work, but, while some portion of my relatively comfortable financial situation can be attributed to my hard work, some portion is also attributable to the fact that I was born into a middle-class family. Likewise, while some portion of an indigent’s lack of financial success may be attributable to her not working, some portion is also attributable to the bad luck of not being born in a middle-class family. So while looking at a person’s desert has significant emotional and political resonance, we need to recognize that luck and society play their roles, too.
(2) Still, though I think it’s hard to argue with my conclusions in (1), I don’t think that’s going to seep into the public consciousness any time soon. Which is one reason why, if we want to create a truly just society, there is value in focusing on those to whom we can’t assign any blame for their situation. And here, I basically mean children. Because children can’t be held responsible for their poverty—that is, because they didn’t have the ability to opt out of being born in poverty—providing them with some sort of help should be uncontroversial, even to the most desert-focused person.[fn9]
So this could go in one of several directions. If you believe my story that, as Mormons, we’re not given religious dispensation to only help the deserving poor, maybe the question is, how do we expand Americans’ view of who is the deserving poor (again, assuming that the political importance of desert isn’t going to go away)? If you don’t buy my story, then maybe the question is, how do we make sure that those who need and deserve our help get that help? Either way, there’s always the question of how much help to give. What, for example, does it mean that, among the people of Enoch, there were no poor among them? Assuming it doesn’t preclude all income inequality,[fn10] we need to determine how much inequality we can leave. Etc.
[fn1] Note that the poverty line, for these purposes, is $22,314 for a family of four, or $11,139 for an individual.
[fn2] If you go to the Wall Street Journal link, I recommend clicking on the interactive map. The variation between the percentage of people in a state receiving food stamps is interesting. I haven’t looked carefully, but in my quick glance, Wyoming has the lowest proportion of food stamp recipients, with 6%, while Mississippi has the most, with 21%.
[fn3] I’m not going to review their book, although I will refer to it and concepts it embraces. I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to think through how we can solve poverty. The two authors have different views—my impression is that one is politically liberal and the other, conservative—but they work to lay out a concrete way that the country could work to reduce poverty without being ideological about it. Because—and this is an important point—neither liberals nor conservatives like poverty, as far as I can tell, and both are interested in solving the problem. Their policy prescriptions may differ, but both seem to want a society that is more just.
[fn4] Note that, in this case, “desert” takes one “s.” Why not two? This Snopes article discusses it. (Did you know, by the way, that Snopes also tackled language myths and mistakes? Me either.)
[fn5] For example, take a look at the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Or maybe King Benjamin explaining that we are to give to the beggar, whether or not she brought her poverty on herself, in the same way God gives to us, lest we be condemned. But contrast that with the Lord’s statement that the idle shall not eat the bread of the worker (although, to be fair, this is the Lord commanding those who enter into the law of consecration not to be idle; it’s not the Lord excusing His people from being charitable. Still, I’ll concede that there may be some wiggle room).
[fn7] That is, if we had complete socioeconomic mobility, with no constraints based on our family of origin, a person who grew up in the bottom 20% of income should have an equal likelihood of ending up in any quintile; only 20% would end up in the bottom quintile of income.
[fn8] These numbers all come from Opportunity Society p. 63.
[fn9] Yes, I know I said my next post in this series would probably deal with New York’s recent sex ed law. But this really belongs first. So probably next time I’m addressing social justice issues, I’ll deal with sex ed. If you’re really disappointed that something came between that post and sex ed, you can pretend this post never happened.
[fn10] I assume it doesn’t eliminate all income inequality—it appears to me that, even under at least one formulation of the United Order, people received according to their needs, which may have been different between individuals and families.