This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
If a nation has the ways and means to solve a social problem that is devastating millions of its citizens’ lives, but it fails to act, doesn’t that mean resolving the problem depends more on moral values than on coming up with new economic policies?
The social problem I am talking about is poverty. Poverty has always been an issue that’s been framed—one way or another—by morality. For those who view the poor with moral indignation, the solution is to enact policies designed to punish; and for those who apply empathy, the goal is to create programs that are geared to empower and uplift the poor.
What I perceive, based on personal experience—I’ve worked with many public and private groups on the issues of homelessness and poverty and I’ve experienced homelessness myself—is that one’s moral perspective on the poverty issue usually defines how one goes about finding and implementing solutions to it.
The dividing line seems to be whether you think poverty is caused by people’s lack of the basic resources they need in order to have stable families, good educational opportunities and jobs; or, you think that people do not have these basic resources because they lack the personal attributes and social skills needed to earn them, as was implied by columnist David Brooks in a New York Times editorial last year.
I think it’s unfair to expect that people who don’t have access to basic needs—like adequate food, housing and healthcare—should live normal and productive lives. To then punish them on top of that—by denying work and income supports, for example—is not only immoral, it’s irrational as well.
Early on in the battle to end poverty in America, the moral high ground was held by those with an empathic approach to alleviating poverty, in words and actions.
President Roosevelt proclaimed: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” He followed up those words with the New Deal, giving rise to Social Security and the modern liberal/progressive movement in America.
In his Inaugural Address in 1961, President Kennedy said: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He then announced a “New Frontier”: policies that extended jobless benefits and aid to children, increased Social Security and the minimum wage, and financed affordable public housing.