There is a drumbeat cry from the intelligensia and black activists, that “the legacy of slavery” is responsible for the poverty and social devastation in black culture. They promote a vision of the welfare state and “a war on poverty” where the government through redistribution corrects “unfairness” in the name of “social justice”.
But the facts contradict their claim. Crime rates, fatherless families, and other social pathologies had improved steadily in the 100 years AFTER slavery, but then worsened radically in the 30 years SINCE the advent of the welfare state in the early 1960s. In England, where there is no “legacy of slavery”, the same welfare state vision created identical poverty and dysfunction in white culture.
Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times explains why such a vision is “needed”: “One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle class American families who loved them, read them stories, nurtured them … They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes” (quoted by Sowell in “Wealth, Poverty … p. 152)
Note carefully: Kristof implies “hard work and intelligence” cannot overcome the “unfairness” of being born in a poor family environment. Many people reading this will from their own experience disagree. Sowell shows that Kristof’s entitlement vision did much to create that poor family environment. Sowell also shows that all successful immigrant groups can and have “triumphed because of hard work and intelligence”.
Those responsible for creating, then sustaining the vision of a welfare state after it had clearly failed are fundamentally at fault for its unintended consequence: creating greater poverty, inequality, and social dysfunction than ever before. Thomas Sowell put it this way: “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do. . . . And that is to destroy the black family.”
With the demise of the black family, the carnage of black on black crime in American cities naturally followed. This is a devastating critique. But Thomas Sowell presents the evidence to support it, in his books “Vision of the Anointed” (1995) and “Wealth, Poverty, and Politics” (2015) and other essays.
The entitlement vision is taught in every public school and university social science classroom in America. No contrary discussion, no contrary evidence is permitted. Many of the students emerging from these classrooms will be its new generation of victims. For this reason, my purpose is to promote Sowell’s research and conclusions, with the hope more people will read his work.
This section on “The War on Poverty” is based on chapter 2 of Sowell’s book “Vision of the Anointed”
The “War on Poverty”
The “war on poverty” was implemented by President Johnson in 1964 and is a classic example of government overreach and incompetency. In terms of relieving poverty, inequality or dependency it was a gross failure. In terms of expanding of government and creating the bureaucratic class, it was a resounding success. Sowell illustrates how “war on poverty” demonstrated three stages of advancing the leftist agenda.
Create the Illusion of a Crisis:
Was there ever really a “poverty crisis? Not really. Poverty had already been steadily declining. In 1940, 87% of black families lived below the poverty line. This had declined to 47% by 1960. Dependency on government welfare to avert poverty had also declined from 1950 to 1965 by about a third. How can there be a real crisis in need of drastic attention if the trend is good?
My personal comment: So the trillions since spent on “the war on poverty” were wasted. The real victims were the genuinely poor, who remained so, and the taxpayers. The beneficiaries were the bureaucrats who became rich, dispensing “social justice”. Astronomical real estate values and wealth in the counties surrounding DC reflect this reality.
Expand Government to Solve “the Crisis”:
The “solution” was passage of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity. After 1974, other agencies took over the administration of welfare. When first proposed in the Kennedy administration (1962) and enacted into law by the Johnson administration (1964) the goal was reducing dependency rather than just transferring wealth. Kennedy said the goal was to “help our less fortunate citizens to help themselves … We must find ways of returning far more of our dependent people to independence”. The NY Times editorialized “no lasting relief can be bought with a relief check … The dividends will come in the restoration of individual dignity and in the long run reduction of the need for government help”.
Ignoring Failure and Redefining Goals:
The results of the war on poverty were opposite of that intended. Over the next 20 years from 1960 to 1980 the black poverty rate dropped another 18 points, compared to the 40% drop in the previous 20 years. The downward trend continued, but at a much slower pace. The previous trend of declining dependency reversed and began to rise within a few years after the program began. By 1992, more people were in poverty than in 1964. Spending also continued to increase as eligibility rules were loosened and specific benefits increased.
From the outset, there had been warnings. Senator Barry Goldwater presciently warned the program would encourage rather than discourage poverty by encouraging “more and more people to move into the ranks of those being taken care of by the government”. Columnist Henry Hazlitt, agreeing with Goldwater said “we can expect the price to increase geometrically as the years go on”.
The failure to reduce dependency is never acknowledged. Instead, success of the program is redefined; the erstwhile goal of reducing dependency is amended to read “reducing poverty”. What they must also ignore is that without the program, poverty was already declining, and at a rate faster than before the program. Contrary views of the program are dismissed as uninformed, irrational, or opposing in some way to the general good.
The remainder of this essay is based on chapter 5 of “Wealth, Poverty, and Politics” by Thomas Sowell
What is “poverty”?
The power to redefine words is a powerful weapon. The official meaning of “poverty” is whatever government policy makers wish it to mean. Thus the poverty rate can be adjusted up or down simply by redefining the word. Likewise, government can be increased to meet the expanded the definition of poverty, given its supposed mandate to “remedy” the increased poverty.
Poverty once implied hunger, ragged clothing, and poor housing. Not so today. Most people living below the official poverty line in 2001 had central air, microwave ovens, cable TV, and two or more television sets. By 2003, nearly three quarters owned at least one vehicle while 14% owned two or more, and occupied more living space than the average (not poor) European. The poverty line in America is defined at a level representing the upper middle class in Mexico. Poverty of the material kind is not the major problem facing those in “official poverty”. The real poverty level is measured in the absence of the human capital that one derives from education, traditional values, hard work, and saving.
Good progress before “war on poverty” … thereafter regression
Black Americans made significant progress in the 20th century but much if not most preceded the “war on poverty” of the 1960’s:
By 1900, the majority of black Americans were literate.
By 1910, about 25% of black farmers were owners/buyers of their land, rather than renter/sharecroppers.
In the era 1880-1925, the typical family was lower class and headed by two parents.
In 1925, just 3% of black families in New York were headed by a woman under 30.
As of 1940, 87% of families lived below the poverty line, declining to 47% by 1960.
These gains occurred before the civil rights laws and social programs of the 1960’s
From the 1960s until 1980, the black poverty rate dipped another 18 points, the continuation of a trend, not than the result of new civil rights laws or welfare policies.
After the 60s, one consequential change was the decline of the two parent family. The proportion of all black children being raised by a single mother increased from 22% in 1960 to 52% by 1995. By 1995 the portion of children being raised in poverty level households absent a father was 85%. So we see a history of decline … not from slavery, but from the advances made in the decades after slavery and during the decades of the welfare state.
Other retrogressions followed the breakdown of the two parent families, including rising rates of welfare dependency, unemployment, crimes, and organized mob violence against whites and Asians in cities and towns throughout the country. Educational achievements declined one example being the proportion of black students at New York’s Stuyvesant High School dropping to a mere one tenth of earlier years. By 2013, a public opinion poll found more blacks saw their fellow blacks as racist than saw whites as racist.
The first ghetto riot occurred paradoxically, in Los Angeles just days after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. The worst riot occurred in Detroit, where the black unemployment rate was a low 3.4% and black home ownership was higher than in any other major city. Riots in the South were less common. These inconvenient facts contradicted but could not alter the vision that problems among blacks were due to deficiencies in the way whites treated them. Their false vision pursued solutions that resisted the culture of those more prosperous. The more their vision failed, the more they blamed the “legacy of slavery”.
The homicide fatality rates among non whites, primarily blacks killing blacks, rose sharply during the 60’s after having declined significantly in the 50’s: from 45.5 per 100,000 in 1950, to 34.5 in 1960 … then up to the killing fields of 60.8 per 100,000 in 1970.
An alternative vision … ignored by “black leadership” and white intelligentsia
An alternative vision is one that Americans have pursued since our founding. It is a vision with a fierce concentration on work, education, and saving. This vision was adopted by all successful immigrant groups including the Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Germans, and Lebanese. It has also lifted indigenous minorities all over the world like the Ibos in Nigeria, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Cubans immigrants believed in this “alternative vision”. When Castro took over Cuba in 1959, many successful business people and professionals had to flee, rather than submit; most settled in Florida. Unable to take their wealth with them, and unable to resume their prior professions since their credentials were not recognized here … they found themselves at the bottom.
“They crammed into apartments and became dishwashers, janitors, and tomato pickers. For the overwhelming majority, the story of their success was one of arduous toil, swallowed pride, and sacrifice for their children. Former executives parked cars; judges washed dishes, doctors delivered newspapers. Women who had never held jobs before worked as seamstresses, hotel maids, or shrimp sorters at warehouses by the Miami River – work so painful they called it La Siberia. As one émigré put it “I was determined that my children would be middle class even if I had to have two jobs, which I did for 14 years” (Wealth, Poverty … Page 64)
So in 1959 the Cubans were at the bottom. But thirty years later by 1990, their children were earning 50 thousand twice as often as white Americans. By the year 2000, the total revenue of Cuban business exceeded the revenue for the entire nation of Cuba. How did the Cubans overcome the “unfairness” that descended upon them in 1959?
It began with courage to leave Cuba and everything they owned, behind. The escape was dangerous and not all made it. It took vision; the willingness to imagine how the future might be different from the present. It took humility for a doctor to deliver newspapers and his wife to work as a maid. It took patience; they did not attain the middle class overnight, 30 years in fact. Many had to wait for their children or grandchildren to make it there. By striving in the three basic tasks … learning, working, and creating … the Cubans overcame adversity and became successful in America.
The tragic consequences of the welfare state vision
During the first half of the 20th century, less educated southern blacks moving north sought to emulate and acculturate into the greater society of their northern compatriots. In the 2nd half of the century, as the intelligensia promoted “multiculturalism”, ghetto/poverty culture began to be celebrated rather than rejected. Emulation of the greater society was seen as “acting white” and a betrayal of black culture. Even the more educated and acculturated blacks adopted some patterns of the ghetto culture as a sign of racial solidarity.
Public housing projects reflected the change in vision. Those built in New York, Philadelphia etc in the 40s 50s and 60s, reflected pride and a sense of community. Doors were unlocked and children played in safety. Graffiti was absent and old men played checkers. After the 60’s, things changed. Residents became prisoners in their own buildings. Shootings and deaths, urine and excrement, muggers and drug dealers, decay, neglect and vandalism, unmarried mothers with multiple children and multiple fathers, demoralization, isolation, addiction, violence, and fear … became the norm.
Similar retrogression occurred in England, as described by Theodore Dalrymple in “Life at the Bottom”. Crime there had declined for years, then spiked upward in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Common to both countries obviously was not the “legacy of slavery” but the rise of the new social vision of the intelligentsia. This vision offered a lenient, non-judgmental attitude towards criminals, supported by a welfare state that subsidized socially destructive lifestyles. Gone was the focus on individual responsibility, the values of work, sacrifice, and education.
In England newly arrived low income immigrants (often black) possessing traditional values excelled over native born children (often white) burdened with ideology. Yes, the roles of white and black were reversed from that of America. Ideology does not discriminate on the basis of color.
In England as here, poverty was not the cause for social regression. In earlier times, even schools in England’s slums maintained educational standards. Dr Dalrymple’s father was born in a slum and he describes his father’s textbooks as having “a rigor and difficulty that would terrify a modern teacher let alone a child”. Schools in the poorest areas did not pander to grievance as they did in later years in pursuit of progressive ideology, but “sought to equip youngsters with the human capital needed to rise out of poverty”.
Subsidized idleness in a non judgmental world traps members in neighborhoods, hopeless. Unable to contribute value, society offers them myriad handouts, including drug and rehab facilities, and ultimately prison. The array of uncoordinated “benefits” available to recipients in the welfare state often combine to exceed the “official poverty line”, or what could be earned in the labor market. So the incentive is never to break the shackles of welfare.
It is the vision of the welfare state that destroys a culture, not the myth of “the legacy of slavery”. This is well known by those who proclaim the myth. They are not blind. They are not stupid. But they have no incentive to remedy what is a burden for taxpayers, a sedative to recipients, a cancer for society, but a guarantee of future votes for them. Also benefiting are those who serve in the vast bureaucracies of the welfare state, with generous pay and benefits exceeding that of the private sector. The housing values in the DC area are testimony to this reality.
Such is the social vision of the progressive left. They know the enormity of suffering their vision imposes on their fellow man. One last tragic example: The ethnic group that has longest received government welfare is the American Indian living on reservations. They have by a very wide margin, the lowest income per capita of anyone.
The Democrat Party today still promotes the welfare state vision while ignoring its devastating consequences. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders believe in this vision and will perpetuate it if elected in November, 2016. I fear American cannot survive if they are successful.