State, national columnists

Can Americans just ‘stop being poor’?

It started out as a seeming faux pas; now it’s a slogan for the right. Fox Business commentator Todd Wilemon last week made waves when he told a “Daily Show” correspondent a way to defeat the problems of poverty: “If you’re poor, stop being poor.”

While Wilemon was mocked on the left, conservatives lauded him. “‘Stop being poor’ has worked very well for the United States,” said one writer at National Review.

Can Americans just “stop being poor”? Why or why not? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.

Ben Boychuk

Snark all you like, but “stop being poor” isn’t the worst advice in the world. Not even close.

“Stop being poor” might be best understood as quintessentially American shorthand for refusing to accept your economic lot in life. Although people are born into poverty, and it’s never been easy to climb from the lowest rungs of the economic latter, it remains the case that nobody is condemned to remain poor in America. Not even now.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the liberal hipsters at “The Daily Show” and their perpetually aggrieved fellow travelers in the progressive blogosphere would take offense so easily. It’s no accident that the Great Recession and its aftermath have fostered a growing sense of fatalism that the Land of Opportunity isn’t what it used to be. By many measurements, the country is stagnating – and government is largely to blame.

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps, to you and me – has grown more than 70 percent during Barack Obama’s time in the Oval Office. Congress is bickering over whether and how to extend unemployment benefits, now at 99 weeks. The president this week announced he would change the nation’s workplace overtime rules without the consent of Congress. Last month, he unilaterally raised the minimum wage for federal contractors.

As it happens, President Obama’s budget proposal notes that 70 percent of federal spending this year will be in the form of direct payments to individuals. “These government transfers now account for 15 percent of GDP,” writes John Merline at Investor’s Business Daily. That’s a record high. And, no, that isn’t a good thing.

All of this suggests government is trying to usurp the private sector and the free market as drivers of prosperity and upward mobility. But it doesn’t work. It’s never worked in America.

“Food stamps did not make food plentiful and cheap,” notes National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson. “More farmland, better irrigation systems, Monsanto lab geeks, and GPS-enabled combines did that.”

In short, government regulation and redistribution won’t help people “stop being poor.” Innovation, education, entrepreneurship, creativity — the stuff that government can only encourage, but never mandate – is what the poor need to improve their lot in life.

Joel Mathis

Conservatives are so thoroughly terrified that government might do something, anything, that they rarely consider the problems on their own merits. Take my friend Ben: Ask him if it’s possible to “stop being poor” and he delivers . . .  a tirade against food stamps.

Which is too bad, because there might be conservative, market-driven solutions to the growing – unavoidable – problem of inequality in this country. But conservatives would have to acknowledge the problem, and that might open the possibility of some bureaucrat or congressman or president somewhere doing something to fix it. Can’t have that.

One does not simply “stop being poor,” and to suggest otherwise is facile – a slogan for those born on third base thinking they hit a triple. It takes a combination of hard work, resources, and opportunity. We’ve got plenty of the first in this country, but the latter two elements are in diminishing supply.

The Associated Press reported this week that middle-class occupations in this country have slowly been disappearing since the recession of 1991, leaving more people to stuck in and scrapping for bottom-tier jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s. Many would like to “stop being poor” and climb that ladder – but the rungs have gone missing.

Instead, AP reports, “ inflation-adjusted income has declined 9 percent for the bottom 40 percent of households since 2007, even as incomes for the top 5 percent now slightly exceed where they were when the recession began late that year, according to the Census Bureau.”

That’s a long-term, systemic problem that won’t be solved with slogans or sermons. Unless we want to settle into a new Gilded Age economy, something needs to be done.

Food stamps didn’t make food cheap, Ben notes. But government did. Public universities created much of the research Monsanto uses to help crops proliferate; farm subsidies made meat and milk cheaper than they ever were for previous generations. Government might or might not be the solution in this present crisis. The command to “stop being poor” surely isn’t.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis


Discussion | 9 comments

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  • General Fadi BasemMarch 13, 2014 - 6:52 pm

    Interested readers are encouraged to Google "Solano safety net summits on Poverty". Christina Arrostuto and her Obama comrades are constantly feeding the public with the big lie. The big lie is that by throwing more money into antipoverty programs like those proposed by Arrostuto and Obama that poverty will be lessened. When the decades of evidence is in the opposite direction. If these programs to lessen poverty were effective, why is there more poor people? Why are there articles in the local news about Lee Bell park and the undesired inhabitants? Another shooting on Alaska Ave? Mother sets her babys on fire? More late-night visitors to the overpopulated house down the street? Antipoverty programs are not designed to eradicate poverty--antipoverty programs are designed to fill the pockets of the antipoverty program administrators. The key to eliminating poverty is two things: (One) Stop encouraging more poverty by discouraging the breeding of more poor people. (Two) Stop the daily importation of more poor people. How could we possibly lessen the number of poor people if we continue to import more every day? If the U.S. government would do those two things poverty would decline within a generation. But then people like Christina Arrostuto and Obama would have to find some real jobs.

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  • rlw895March 13, 2014 - 11:06 pm

    You've got it wrong. #1 is the world's best national health care system.

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  • Danny BuntinMarch 14, 2014 - 5:17 pm

    Exactly what are you a General of?

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  • The MisterMarch 14, 2014 - 7:29 am

    The answer to the headline is, "Yes". Every dollar of money in our economy is borrowed into existence. Every dollar, then, has interest due on it... and it compounds. Where is this money borrowed from? Ultimately from Central Banks from around the world and from our very own Central Bank, The Federal Reserve (which is a private, for-profit mega-corporation). How can Americans stop being poor? Congress can pull the charter they gave to The Federal Reserve (a private, for-profit corporation) to create our money supply (at interest to this Central Bank). Our US Treasury department used to be responsible for, and can again, make our money supply WITHOUT interest. The overwhelming debt burden is mostly interest (or monetized interest) that only goes benefits the secret shareholders of these Central Banks... and that makes Americans poor. Return responsibility of our nation's money supply to the US Treasury, with oversight by Congress, and Americans will stop being poor.

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  • Mike KirchubelMarch 14, 2014 - 7:55 am

    Absolutely agree. This is not a left vs. right problem at all, it is a 99.99% vs. 0.01% problem. It should be an easy vote, but nobody talks about it. Why?

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  • Mike KirchubelMarch 14, 2014 - 8:00 am

    Oh, and telling people to stop being poor is as useful as telling Republicans to stop acting stupid.

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  • Mr. SmithMarch 14, 2014 - 8:49 am

    Well of course it was a "nuanced" comment. You liberals claim to own nuance, so pretending to take the comment at face value for purposes of ridiculing it is a bit disingenuous, Mike.

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  • The MisterMarch 14, 2014 - 9:57 am

    Good luck with that one, Mike!

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  • Salty DogMarch 14, 2014 - 2:35 pm

    Mike their you go you continue with the name calling and you are correct it is the 99.99% vs the 0.01% The only problem with that is the president continues to push for people to live in poverty by not encouraging them to strive to make something of them self's. How about this you have 2 farmers and their is an ongoing drought and the farmers both need the rain the first farmer say's why should i plant my crops it's not going to rain and the government will take care of me any way. Then you have the second farmer he say's even thought we haven't had any rain he plants his crops any way, even thought the government will take care of me. Well the rain came an who do you think prospered. If you can not figure it out it was the second farmer. why because he did what he had to do to prosper. The second farmer did not wait on the government and that is what is wrong with President Obama he does not want to lift any one up he only wants bring people down.

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