June 28, 2013

Caring for the poor. Teaching them to fish might not be enough.

We have a lot of poor people in this world. But what is meant by poor can mean a lot of different things in different places. I really don't thing anyone would disagree that a single mother in Central America that has only a piece of dirt with no electricity, running water, toilets, or even a roof overhead is poor. One of my neighbors recently went there trying to help the extremely poor, and met this woman. She has about as close to nothing as one can get. She just wanted to have enough food to keep her and her 2 year old son alive for another week. I read many articles about poor people in various parts of the world who just want food. That is truly poor.

There are other kinds of poor. We have an ongoing debate in this country on how to help the poor. Our federal government has dozens of programs to help the poor. We spend unfathomable amounts of dollars trying to address the problem of America's poor. Unfortunately, the more of these programs that get used, the fewer that do all they can to work their way up out of poverty. It doesn't seem to mater how much we give them, it doesn't raise them out of poverty.

I suspect, there are several factors involved here. The first is opportunity and it is a double edged factor. There are many in the extreme poverty that simply do not have opportunity. There are many in fact, even if they knew 'how' to fish, could not feed themselves as they have no access to the fishing waters. Before we start teaching people how to take care of themselves, we need them to have access to the means to take care of themselves. The other side of opportunity applies to those who have the opportunity to life themselves up, but who have a better opportunity to just take the hand outs and not have to work for it. I am not saying the poor in the US don't work. Many of them do, but there are those who do not. Our means testing is very imperfect, and often those who get the most help, don't need it nearly as much as those to don't get the help. I have know quite a few families over the years whose expertise covered which forms and programs to leverage to get a maximum payout from the government.

The second factor is motivation. Those extreme poor in places like Central America, Africa, an so on would do just about anything to improve their situation. They work harder than just about everybody on the planet when they have opportunity. They have motivation. They lack opportunity. They also lack skills and training. If they have the chance, the will get the skills and training. The flip side is that those with robust social programs don't seem to have the motivation to work hard to improve their situation. It isn't that they don't want better. They do. But if they get too successful and trying to improve their situation, they will reach cutoffs for the programs they are using, the their success will ultimately penalize them and leave them worse off than they were before. They are motivated, but motivated to become better at utilizing government and other programs which provide for their needs. They are motivated to avoid too much success.

It is really tragic that this dichotomy exists. We need to find a way to have programs that taper better. That don't penalize those who are finding success. And, we need to find a way to take the resources we dedicate to the problem of poverty, and use it more effectively. Whatever the solution, it should be simple to administer, and difficult to defraud. And most importantly, it should be easily copy-able by those parts of the world where the truly extreme poor and in abundance.