Mean-Spirited People and the Maintenance of Poverty


Mostly, this is a brief collection of preambles about poverty, not a detailed package for its solution. As such, all readers unappreciative of social and philosophical context, and perhaps averse to conservative think tanks to begin with, might want to quit reading now. But I hope you don’t, for several reasons, beyond the fact that both context and contests are vital to policy-making.

One reason is that Joe Selvaggio of Project for Pride in Living, in Minneapolis, has written a generous and good first piece, in which he opens by announcing: “My name is Joe, and I’m a liberal.” And in which he closes by saying: “Only a coalition of conservatives and liberals will save us from ourselves.” The essays and items that follow, in other words, are not perfectly predictable.

Another reason is that Stephen B. Young gets to the theological and literary roots why conservatives, putting it bluntly, often are considered heartless characters. As chairman of American Experiment, as you might expect, he finds the roots mangled and the description wrong.

A third reason is the recommendations of the Twin Cities Task Force on Homelessness and Jobs, which are specific. This ideologically very diverse group grew out of conversations with Mr. Selvaggio shortly after American Experiment’s inaugural conference last spring. The modest proposals aim to increase job opportunities for homeless men and women in the Twin Cities — who are able to work — by improving cooperation between temporary employment agencies and homeless shelters. Needless to say, task force members do not necessarily agree with other chapters in this report.

As for my essay, it is undeniably dark, as I am undeniably pessimistic about significantly reducing poverty in Minnesota and the nation anytime soon. America’s worst poverty will not go away until politicians and others first find the courage to acknowledge its often behavioral, cultural and spiritual causes, and then find right means to address them.

In truth, this collection was intended to be thicker with concrete proposals than the current product. But I was not impressed with what was forming, and cut much of it. (Mr. Selvaggio’s contribution, in fact, was planned as a preface, which explains its shorter length.) My colleagues and I will be coming back in coming months with additional, specific ideas for taking greater advantage of our religious institutions and traditions, enlarging the number of loving homes for children, and addressing similarly baffling problems.

Not that we have been wholly remiss in spelling out exact ideas on poverty. For instance, we published “The American Experiment Plan,” as conceived by St. Paul lawyer Kelly Rask, in December. It describes a fundamentally new way of taking advantage of the private sector in training chronically unemployed people, and is available for $5 ($3 for members).

And last June, we released “Ten Tenative Truths” by one of our directors, Chester E. Finn, Jr., of Vanderbilt University. He was asked to respond to two questions: What ought society do when families crumble? And, what ought government do when children are endangered? Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote: “[Y]ou might find yourself wishing that our social policy leadership, public and private, had the insight to see (and the courage to say) what Finn has said.” Copies are available for $4 ($2 for members).

Which raises the matter of members: We do hope you will join American Experiment, as we need your help, especially as a new institution. Memberships range from $50 to $1,000, with tokens of appreciation for each. Please call for information.

And I very much welcome your comments on this policy pastiche.

Thanks very much.

Mitchell B. Pearlstein
January 1992

If we look past the over-used recriminations between left and right regarding who really cares about reducing poverty in the United States, convergence on a common approach to the problem is emerging.

First, those on the left, now known as liberals, admit that massive government programs and large-scale transfers of resources to the poor have not adequately addressed the causes of poverty. Second, those on the right, still known as conservatives but once called Manchester liberals, following the economic reform tradition of Adam Smith, now acknowledge that the goal in reforming our welfare system is not solely to reduce budget expenditures. Seeking major reductions in the causes of poverty has now been placed on the conservative agenda.

The left continues to focus its attention on historical and institutional explanations of why some people, through no fault of their own, are born to more difficult conditions than others experience, circumstances which are hard to escape through individual effort. Deriving policy prescriptions from this perspective, the left looks primarily to resource transfers from haves to have-nots as a systematic corrective of unequal conditions.

On the other hand, conservatives, while not ignoring the challenge to individual initiative posed by socioeconomic circumstances, nonetheless insist that personal will and individual conduct can better improve life for most individuals and families than governmental wealth transfers can.

Bipartisan agreement on a workable anti-poverty program remains unachieved primarily because the left and today’s “liberals” unjustly stereotype conservative points of view as being “mean spirited,” or as “blaming the victim” for the consequences of poverty. These ad hominem attacks on the moral decency of conservatives gained currency in the early Victorian era of social reform in England. These old myths must give way to new realities if we are to make substantial progress in national well-being.

Charles Dickens, in his morality tale about the Christmas conversion of the miser Ebeneezer Scrooge to compassion and charity, idealized one approach, an individualist one, for helping the poor. Reflecting pious sentiments of his time, Dickens encouraged us to infer from the behavior of his imaginary character Scrooge that the poor can only be helped through compassion, that helping the poor is a moral obligation for those with wealth and power, that those who do not personally assist the poor are mean-spirited misers of low human worth, and that the best strategy for helping the poor lies in charitable assistance for the immediate relief of their afflictions.

Thus did personal morality become part of the debate over how best to bring all Americans into full participation in the country’s economic activities. Morality, perhaps more than economic calculations, has been the touchstone of more than one public attempt to reduce poverty. Yet poverty retains a voracious appetite, consuming the lives of too many Americans in a country of vast affluence.

But, indeed, many Americans, perhaps most, are selfish in a way. They are not strongly motivated to share what they have earned with others. Therefore, raising the issue of compassion and charity as justifications for public policy does have merit on occasion.

In line with Dickens’ prescription, public policy regarding the poor has been to turn government, both federal and state, into a compassionate Scrooge. Government’s response to poverty has been defined as showing compassion and directing income transfers to those in need as gifts no different in conception from Scrooge’s present of a Christmas turkey to Bob Cratchit’s poor but deserving family. But like Cratchit’s need to rely on Scrooge’s good intentions, under the compassion strategy for fighting poverty, the poor remain wards of their donors, dependent on the kindness of strangers for their ability to get on in the world.

However, the price paid by the poor whenever they accept the pattern of dependency so often resulting from the Dickensian approach to the problem of poverty is often overlooked in public debate. The debate focuses more on the degree of compassion which should be shown by donors than on the long-term effects of such charitable motivations on the donees. Those who show insufficient support for continual and systemic resource transfers as the principal means of reducing poverty are characterized as the Scrooges of today, a rhetorical tactic of drawing opprobrium upon those with alternate prescriptions for social action.

Whenever the Dickensian view of how best to help the poor is challenged, a hue and cry has arisen to disparage those with the temerity to raise unpleasant and awkward issues. The character of those asking the question is maligned; they are attacked as being “mean spirited” and as lacking in compassion.

As a matter of logic, this kind of rebuttal is faulty; it is an argument from definition, name-calling without the force of reasoned analysis behind it.

Those who question the centrality of compassion are said by Dickensians to undervalue that kind of compassion. The rebuttal is true on its face; not to value something is to disparage its usefulness. But the response ignores whether social policies designed primarily to extract compassion from the wealthy are an adequate response to systemic poverty.

This thinking on the exact role of compassion perpetuates a one-sided approach to solving the problem of poverty. Its single-mindedness may explain why the approach has encountered difficulty in achieving its economic goal of reducing dependency. A problem as complex as endemic poverty will never yield to simplistic formulas of remediation. Anti-poverty strategies chosen primarily to demonstrate compassion will be inadequate; though morally admirable in some ways, they inevitably will be wrong-headed in others.

For example, as a matter of a priori assumptions, it is not clear to me that sustaining another person in a position of dependency, as an object of my charity, in order to demonstrate my capacity for compassion is true compassion. Rather, such a response to the need of another may use that other person as an object of my own advancement. Compassion, like any virtue, can be abused, especially if it justifies treating another person as a means.

Those accused of showing insufficient sensitivity to the needs of others often respond to the accusation with another moral argument, raising the issue of whether or not recipients of charity should act so as to deserve what they are given. Bob Cratchit, after all, was loyal and hardworking; his poverty was caused by low-wages and not by any flaw in his character.

In order to win political support from those who rest on the morality of just deserts, those advocating income-transfer programs have agreed, often with reluctance, to condition the receipt of such transfers on compliance with certain standards of behavior.

Morality thus shapes our debate over poverty in more ways than one, and certain judgmental themes arise again and again. They are: Are the poor deserving, are they good people? Do the rich deserve their disproportionate share of wealth? Are the rich really good people?

Where current discussions of how to eliminate poverty are concerned, a polarization along moralistic lines frustrates effective action. The left demands above all a transfer of economic resources to the poor; conservatives assert that many in poverty can and, therefore, must work themselves out of that situation by greater self-reliance.

This moral evaluation as a part of public debate in our culture gains voice whenever wealth is implicated by the topic under discussion. For example, tax policies provoke moral commentary: How much should the wealthy pay? This is more an evaluation of the moral contribution of the wealthy to community values than an econometric analysis of how self-interested incentives can best be adjusted to improve national productivity and savings rates. This is precisely the case in the capital gains debate.

Similarly, environmental regulation is often cast in self-righteous, morally imperative tones that business alone should pay for reducing industrial pollution. Reasonable objections to particular environmental schemes are characterized at times as willfull avoidance of the common good by self-seeking profit-maximizers.

Since Andrew Jackson built his presidential political fortunes out of attacks on plutocrats and big-city bankers, our politics have juxtaposed, supposedly in irreconcilable antagonism, disparagement of the wealthy out of regard for the common good, on the one hand, and a defense of economic development with its reliance on private wealth, on the other.

Moral stigmatizing of those with different views occurs frequently over what the wealthy should do for the rest of us. The left accuses those unwilling to assent to limitations on profit-maximization and wealth redistribution of being selfish — a serious moral defect in most religious traditions. Conservatives — at times on the defensive regarding this imputation of self-seeking ambitions, but not perceiving themselves as morally defective persons — respond with attempts to shift the argument to grounds of economic efficiency: The “rising tide of prosperity will lift all boats” strategy, which is sometimes disparaged as the “wealth will trickle-down” theory of social amelioration..

A grand social compromise between today’s liberals and conservatives on how best to attack our current problem of entrenched poverty could be achieved. An observer of our debate, one biased by no need for moralizing anyone, would quickly intuit that, at times, resource transfers and behavior changes are necessary for individuals to move themselves permanently into self-sustaining economic independence.

But a meeting of minds on a common agenda is blocked by name-calling and attacks on personal integrity. Accused of being “bad,” supposedly mean-spirited conservatives resent legitimizing the wealth transfers sought by progressives. Smarting under the accusation that they are permissive and naive, progressives resist adopting requirements for behaviorial changes as part of poverty programs, such as imposing negative consequences on the poor for inappropriate personal conduct.

The thought experiment long offered by those assisting in the economic development of former colonies and other Third World nations applies to our concern over reduction of domestic poverty: Is it better to give a person living in poor conditions a fish or to teach that person how to fish?

The answer is obvious: It is far better to empower disadvantaged people to support themselves than to keep them in dependency. Of course, for a period of transition until they attain self-sufficiency, providing them with daily sustenance will be necessary. But the means of aiding a transition should not be substituted for winning permanent self-reliance.

Type-casting conservatives as lacking the moral credentials to have their emphasis taken seriously — that changes in individual behavior are a feasible way out of poverty — is unfair.

The left and most liberals adopt this rhetorical critique of conservatives, I am convinced, for the same reasons that Dickens did in creating the tale of Scrooge: It is a rhetoric of profound influence in our culture. Defining poverty as a problem to be addressed by the ignition of compassionate intentions offers political legitimacy to anyone who adopts such rhetoric.

The high moral ground of the American political culture was laid out in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible. There we read how Jehovah promised enjoyment of the land of milk and honey to those who obeyed His commandments and walked in the ways He defined as righteous. In its simplest formulation, the Old Testament presents a person’s possible material circumstances in life as the result of a compact. Just as the Lord God would reward His chosen people, the Hebrews, with possession of the land of milk and honey upon their following His commandments with fidelity and devotion, so an individual cannot expect to be rewarded with wealth unless he or she walks in the path of biblical righteousness. The prophets taught that Israel would lose its independence and claim to prosperity if its kings did not harken to the word of the Lord.

Thus did theology establish the interdependence of virtue and wealth. Under this teaching the virtuous could expect prosperity and success and the wealthy needed to justify their superior circumstances by moral behavior.

In this syllogism it becomes a necessary conclusion that possession of wealth must be independently justified by compliance with a moral code. This we are taught by the story of Job. God permits his material happiness to be utterly destroyed, and when Job refuses to reject his faith, he is rewarded with possession of twice his former goods. In this religious tradition, through which the Puritans and other Protestant believers came to shape the American sense of national destiny, wealth should follow the attainment of good moral character. Those who have wealth but flunk a moral test lose our respect and cannot claim legitimate title to their prosperity. They are vulnerable to dispossession on behalf of a good greater than their own satisfaction.

Here we have stumbled upon the religious basis for the politics of redistribution.

These Old Testament propositions regarding prosperity and righteousness were elaborated in the New Testament through Jesus’ rejection of religious salvation through secular works and achievements. More than wealth was necessary to achieve assurance of the Lord God’s satisfaction; land, cattle, goods were external indicia only, not proof of inner worth. Religious justification, taught Jesus, turned on those inner qualities of heart and spirit rather than on communal power and prestige.

Even today, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, accusing another of failing in the ways of righteousness permits one to play the prophet’s role, to set oneself up as God’s surrogate in the secular realm. Playing out this role asserts a claim to considerable legitimacy, and as a consequence, to de facto authority as well.

Our moral heritage, shaped so pervasively by specific religious traditions, also has created a secular counterpart to the task of religious interpretation. Many insightful, articulate people make a living providing the service of debunking the statuses of the wealthy and the powerful. From tar and feathering Tory supporters of King George the Third, through 19th century muckraking, to the counter-culture and advocacy journalism of the late 1960’s, Americans have always responded with indignation at the potential abuse when they hear allegations that power and position have been manipulated for shortsighted, selfish reasons by those who should act with fidelity, out of a commitment to servanthood. Judging the use of wealth and power by fiduciary standards has venerable Biblical roots.

But the syllogism linking the exercise of wealth and power to righteous conduct works in both directions. Not only may possession of wealth be an attribute of personal morality, but moral people may claim a share of wealth. Thus some may simplistically equate wealth with being elect in God’s eyes: We may easily — and many Americans do — slip into the assumption that gaining money will add to our moral stature.

So it is felt by some that poor people are indeed suspect; their poverty is a mark of Cain reflecting some moral defect on their part. Or, it is felt by others that becoming more wealthy should be a personal goal of great importance as a means of persuading relatives and friends that one has attained legitimate status in life.

This attitude justifies simplistic wealth transfers to the poor. As a speaker said when referring to the poor at American Experiment’s inaugural conference, on poverty, in April 1990, “We value you so much, that we will put a lot of money in your programs.”

This approach to helping poor people cannot only easily become patronizing and de-legitimating of their inherent moral worth, it reflects the allowance psychology of American parents that love for children can be adequately expressed through regular donations of money and gifts at Christmas, birthdays, and, in some families, on demand.

Conservatism and mean spiritedness

As we consider the Judeo-Christian comingling of money and morality, in what sense can we say that conservative approaches to ending poverty are supposedly mean spirited?

Conservatives apply to the poor the moral requirements set for the more well-to-do as well. Does this belittle or disparage the poor? To the contrary, it accepts them as equals, holding common expectations out for them. It reflects a strategy of progressive empowerment of the poor, not indefinite dependency. It looks to find in individuals capacities to influence the future, not just at historic or other impersonal causes of their past disadvantage.

And yet this approach is at times rejected as a mean-spirited “blaming the victim for his or her victimization.” Indeed, as I pointed out above, the Old Testament syllogism permits an inference that someone who suffers poverty as Job did for a time deserves such a fate as the consequence of falling short in God’s eyes. Such inferences, even though permissible within the scope of Old Testament logic, should be resisted. Other humans are imperfect judges of who, within their company, may or may not be righteous in God’s sight. Further, the New Testament corrects the inference with a teaching that the poor as well as the rich are justified by a loving God.

By analogy, a strategy of economic development for poor countries in which centralized bureaucracies direct things will not produce economic growth if individual behavior patterns remain inappropriate for maximizing investment and productivity. The ill effects of a bad mode of economic organization cannot be overcome by resource transfers from rich countries to the country seeking to develop; it is like pouring water into the Sahara.

Development requires changes in more than a mode of production. People must change; certain attitudes toward self, toward achievement, toward one’s future are associated with successful modernization. The human correlates of modernization drive economic development. People must believe their situation will get better before they will work to make it so.

But conservatives do react differently than progressives to the phenomena associated with poverty. Conservatives, expecting the poor to act self-reliantly, frequently feel less personal complicity in the fact of poverty. Their emotional stance is often more restrained when confronting circumstances of chronic dependency and hopelessness. This caution arises not because conservatives don’t care about people or because they are congenitally mean spirited, but because they are not predisposed to respond from a perspective of guilt.

I suspect that the progressive fixation on resource transfers as the best remedy for poverty, as opposed to expectations of hard work, proper conduct and self-improvement, reflects not so much true compassion for individuals who are poor, but rather a need to assuage inner doubts and a sense of guilt.

If the left puts at issue a moral calculus denigrating conservative motivations, then turnabout is fair play. The schemes and doctrines of the left can be similarly dissected to reveal the inner motivations of progressive advocates.

By assuming in the tradition of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that human circumstances are under rational control, rather than a response to God’s will or historical accident, the left has long concluded that society’s leaders have the power to remedy all social and political ills. Consequently, where bad things happen or unhappiness is found, someone is thought to be guilty of that fact. Not just responsible for taking action of a positive, remedial nature, but guilty as an author of the fall from grace and justice.

From this perspective, those with more wealth and power, of course, should share a disproportionate burden of the guilt arising as a result of imperfections in the human condition.

Thus progressive policy invokes a polemic of guilt to support a rhetoric of moral criticism. Yet as we know from individual psychotherapy, acting out of guilt is a suspect motivation. Acting to placate the demands of guilt does not dry up the spring of desire. Acting out of guilt solidifies, even accentuates, the power of that disturbing emotional complex. Once on the neurotic treadmill powered by guilt, it is very hard to dismount. Much in the teaching of psychotherapy instructs patients to outgrow the guilt which was instilled in them by their parents as a device to keep children from threatening the status quo.

If outgrowing guilt and acting from a mature sense of work, love and responsibility are desirable in individuals, it makes sense to adopt the same approach in devising social policies as well. A sense of civic responsibility can achieve all the good of a guilt-driven compassion and far more because it proceeds from a strong sense of self-esteem and has no need of patronizing others.

Looking upon poverty as a means to assuage white, middle-class guilt reduces neither poverty nor guilt. If the poor should all become rich, how could the guilt be affirmed? A new cause would have to be found through which those who feel guilty could justify themselves. Thus approaching poverty out of guilt uses the poor as a crutch; the poor depend endlessly on progressive policies for a livelihood while progressives depend on the existence of the poor to establish their self-righteousness.

As Dickens professed in his A Christmas Carol , and as was taught by Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew, a generous compassion is good for one’s soul and, indeed, can alleviate the distress of others. However, transferring such motivation from the individual to the social level removes the motivation from its original context and places it in different surroundings. No logic can establish that the motivation remains as equipped to achieve its object in the new setting as it was in its native habitat. Before using a yardstick of individualized compassion as the alpha and omega of social policy and as the litmus test for right thinking about poverty, we should reflect on the complex causes of poverty and the individual efforts necessary to change any life course.

At some point our response to poverty will become more effective when we move beyond meeting the psychic needs of those who propose solutions and focus on a more objective standard: What works best in the lives of poor people to make permanent changes for the better in their condition?

Mixing the wrong kind of moral imperatives into poverty programs is not the path of wisdom.

— Stephen B. Young is Chairman of the Board, Center of the American Experiment