Last week, I posted a link to this post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money. The first comment on that post (the one at LGM) seemed like an excellent opening to a post I’d been thinking about for a while. Here’s the comment:
My Jesuit moral theology professor used to say “The number one cause of poverty in the US is not having enough money”, and then deal with the predictable chorus of counterarguments. He used to continue “Those are all interesting questions, but they’re other questions…”
One of the biggest challenges to addressing poverty effectively is that we constantly try to address poverty by addressing other problems.
Poverty, pretty much by definition, is the condition of not having enough money. If you give enough money to someone who doesn’t have enough money, then you have solved her problem of poverty. She is no longer poor. She might have other problems, but the point is that those are other problems.
Unemployment is another problem. Financial illiteracy is another problem. Lack of education is another problem. As the Jesuit moral theology professor might say, they are interesting problems, they are problems that need to be solved, but they are other problems.
But anti-poverty programs spend their time and effort trying to solve other problems. Some do that in tandem with efforts to address poverty. Some make it a prerequisite to addressing poverty. For example, an anti-poverty program might require proof of a job search or a financial literacy class as a condition of receiving financial help. And this approach stems from the idea that poverty is ultimately caused by the moral or intellectual deficiencies of low-income people.
As Erik Loomis put it in that post at Lawyers, Guns & Money, we keep trying to ‘fix poor people’ instead of solving the problem of poverty. And that doesn’t work.
Emerging research suggests that poverty isn’t simply – or even mostly – the result of bad decisions made or inappropriate behaviors engaged in by low-income individuals and families. Poverty is a major cause of those decisions and behaviors. And that means that we may not have to address those other problems in order to address poverty. Instead, it may be the case that addressing poverty first will help with addressing those other problems.
It’s also true that some of those other problems might not even exist. Despite the stereotype that low-income people are bad at managing their finances, low-income individuals might actually be better at managing their finances than high-income people.
There’s plenty of research still to be done, but I have suspicions about what it will reveal. Philanthropy in America needs to make a huge cultural transition. We need to stop focusing on ‘fixing the poor’ – on the other problems that we’re so often told we need to address – and focus on poverty. And it may well be that the best and most effective anti-poverty programs will be simple: giving enough money to people who don’t have enough money.