The great unsolved paradox of poverty is … how can anyone help. For to stay out of poverty at the very least requires principally an attitude of self-reliance (well yes I do know there are some other requisites but with out that it all counts for naught). But how can one be helped to discover within one self personal self-reliance. For aid given freely will serve to foster dependency, not exactly what one needs to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Therein lies the paradox.
Social program developed since the end of WW II, it seems to me foster exactly the wrong attitude. They, for the most part, without exception are designed to build dependency and squash self-reliance. There are “training” programs … but what happens when the “going gets tough”, but those people are trained to look for assistance and aid exactly the wrong place to look, that is to say not to themselves. So that doesn’t work.
However, equally misguided perhaps is the response on the right. There the call is for basically benevolent neglect. To provide a safety net so low that none will die, but just as importantly none will wish to remain willingly. I have called for such things in my somewhat whimsical “King for a Day” essays. While I am convinced that charity is best kept out of the hands of the polis because mainly because by doing so it tends to dry up and discourage personal acts and impulses to charity more than it helps it still remains true that loving my neighbor when I am have means and there are poor means action is demanded. But to do what? How do I love these neighbors of mine?
Do we try to act as “parents” to these adults. Trying to do the same things that parents do when teaching their children to be self reliant. I’m not convinced that’s the right answer. For children by their very nature when growing up naturally strain at the leash wishing to test themselves in the wide world. But adults, trapped by social circumstances to be trained that they can rely on the state and that by practical circumstances that they have little chance to succeed. It is indeed harder to teach “old dogs new tricks”. So how do we teach or convince them that they need to depend on themselves. That they need to strive, learn, scheme, plan, figure the angles, and work hard to get what they want for themselves and their children. That the quick fix isn’t real. And all those things that the rest of us “advantaged” folk take for granted. How do you teach someone in poverty that sometimes you need to work a 36 hour shift or a 90 hour work week to “get the job done”? To take pride in his work? When what he wants it the quick fix. To win big. To get lucky in the lottery of life. If you don’t learn this by watching your parent how do you teach it to a culture, to a people?
The sad part of it is, while this may be one of the more pressing issues left in our society today we have no answers and at the same time right and left cling equally tightly each to their own badly flawed solutions. Answers which don’t work and we (in our hearts) know it. I think we have to discard our dependence on solutions which don’t work and look for new ones (or old ones?). I wish I had an aha! moment and could say … well we could try X. But I don’t. We must go on searching.
It is also clear that in New Orleans, poverty is not the whole answer to what happened there. There are deeper structural problems going to explain the breakdown of civility. After the tsunami poor people were stranded without in great numbers, but they didn’t turn to rapine and pillage. Paul wrote in Romans that suffering produces endurance and endurance character. But, while the poor are miserable in their state in our country by any historical measure they surely don’t suffer greatly. Obesity and type 2 diabetes threatens their health not starvation. Few lack television, cell phones or the necessities of life. Perhaps what they lack is purpose and meaning. Perhaps the “right” is correct, but not daring enough. That we need to lower the “safety net” low enough that one suffers real privation when one stumbles and falls … if nothing else to build the character one needs in life when one recovers. But, I’m not daring (and I daresay neither is any elected official) enough to really follow through with that suggestion.