The Failings of Liberalism, Part III

by John Eberhard

The Myth of the Poor

One of the primary concepts that liberalism (and its underlying ideology, socialism) is based on, is the idea that we have to help the poor.

Karl Marx said that all history was the history of class warfare, and that employers everywhere were oppressing employees. Employees were therefore victims. Marx makes a big point in The Communist Manifesto, crying the blues about how workers cannot do anything to improve their station in life. Therefore, his solution was income redistribution – welfare, progressive taxation, revolution and so on.

The liberal mass media makes a big deal continually of the plight of the poor, and how we have to "do something" to help them.

If you analyze this, you will see that this idea that we have to "do something" to help the poor, and especially the idea that we have to use income redistribution, is based on three underlying principles:

a) That the poor cannot do anything themselves to improve their situation,
b) That their poverty state is permanent, and
c) That they are not in any way themselves responsible for being in poverty.

Think about it – if those things were not true, there would be no real social imperative to "do something" about poverty.

Thomas Sowell, Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a weekly syndicated columnist (LA Daily News among others), and a black man, takes on this idea in a recent column.

Sowell reports that a May 31, 2004 article in BusinessWeek magazine says "One in four workers earns $18,800 a year or less, with few if any benefits. What can be done?"

Deeper inside the article, we find out that Census data shows that one third of these are part-time workers, and one third are 18-25 years old. Only one third of the one fourth under $18.8K would be poor in a permanent sense (criteria "b" above). One third of one fourth would be about 8% of the total workforce that could be considered permanently poor, according to BusinessWeek’s data.

Sowell states "As for ‘What can be done?’ that is a misleading question because the article is about what other people can do for the ‘working poor,’ not what they can do for themselves, much less what they did in the past – or failed to do – that led to their having such low earning capacity."

"An absolute majority of the people who were in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1975 have since then also been in the top 20 percent. This inconvenient fact has been out there for years – and has been ignored for years by those who want more government programs to relieve individuals from responsibility for making themselves more productive and therefore higher income earners."

Census Data

I went to the US Census web site and slugged through the data there on poverty (not an easy task as it’s not organized very well), and found some very interesting facts.

A July 1998 Census Bureau report entitled "Trap Door? Revolving Door? Or Both?" covers 1993-94 and includes data from both the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The CPS tracks how many people are below the poverty line at any given time, whereas the SIPP data tracks people over a period of time to see how long they typically stay in poverty.

The CPS shows that 15.7% of the population was poor in 1993 and 15.4% was poor in 1994. But the SIPP data shows that only 5.3% of the population was poor for the entire 24 months of the survey.

Another Census Bureau report entitled "Poverty in the United States: 2002" measures the years from 1996 through 1999, and shows similar trends. It states "People in poverty are not a static population; rather, people stay in poverty for different lengths of time." The report goes to say that only 5.7% of those studied remained poor for 36 months, and only 2.0% were in poverty every month of the entire 4-year period studied.

So instead of a situation where a large segment of the population (one quarter) is permanently poor, we get a truer picture of poverty being a condition that people move into and then out of. And those that are more or less permanently below the poverty line make up only a tiny fraction. That’s why articles like the one in BusinessWeek have to concentrate on anecdotal data instead of hard statistics.

Professor Sowell’s data shows that a large portion of what is officially considered poverty, is young people (who as they grow older, gain more job skills and move up the income ladder), and part time workers – who cannot really be considered as part of this statistic because they’re not even working full time.


Above, I said that the idea that we must "do something" for the poor is based on the ideas:

) That the poor cannot do anything themselves to improve their situation,
) That their poverty state is permanent, and
) That they are not in any way themselves responsible for being in poverty.

BusinessWeek, other liberal publications, and liberal politicians are routinely hammering this idea that we’ve got to do something about the poor. Always, the solution involves what the government must do, in the form of welfare and other social giveaway programs. It never centers around the person’s own responsibility. We are told that they cannot do anything themselves, and of course they’re not responsible. They’re victims, of the oppressive employers of course.

In my first article in this series I said:

Parents are supposed to teach their kids the basics of this system:

  • Getting a good education will help you be more financially successful in life
  • The more skills you learn in school, the more valuable (well paid) you will be in the workplace
  • Conversely, if you go all the way through high school and still can?t read, write, spell, etc., competently, you will only be qualified for minimum wage or manual labor
  • Take advantage of your school years to learn the needed skills, because you will be too busy working later on

These are the things the liberal media and politicians should be pushing (but don’t hold your breath for them to say them). These are the messages that all Americans need to be teaching their kids. And we have to teach adults who may not have gotten the message growing up. We should be hammering this message at least as often as we hear that we have to "do something" for the poor. Next time you hear that, say loudly that the poor should do something for themselves, and that by statistics, most of them do anyway.

Part IV coming soon.

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