Poverty, to an economist, is mostly an abstract matter. Just like GDP is a number and unemployment is a number, the poverty rate is also mostly thought of as a number. It’s a very important number, and one that we work hard to try to reduce. But the essential nature of the task is mostly thought of as a technical problem to be solved, like a constrained optimisation – consider the variable to be minimised and the policy variables that can be altered to achieve this, check that the Lagrange multipliers on all the constraints are satisfied, check the second order condition to make sure you haven’t found a maximum instead of a minimum etc. Out comes optimal policy.
But real poverty, when you see it up close and in the flesh, is raw and visceral. It is shocking, in fact. This may sound melodramatic, but bear with me. Like anyone living in a large US city, I see poverty mostly in the form of the shambling figures of the homeless walking around downtown areas. But they tend to feature as the Banquo’s Ghost at the fringes of whatever otherwise pleasant social function I’m attending, or the nice area of town I’m walking around in. They are, in other words, an aberration – the puzzling exceptions left behind in the sea of prosperity.
No, to actually see what abject indigence looks like at the coal face, one must venture to where poverty is not the exception, but the norm. I was at a homeless rescue mission the other day, with an out of town friend of mine. His family was dropping off a large order of dinner for Thanksgiving and helping out in the serving. If I had not been spending the day with him, I would never in a million years have headed there.
They say that one of the important things that you are taught in the Marines is to overcome one’s instinct to run away from the sound of gunfire. Everyone has this instinct, but to an army, it is disastrous. A soldier must run towards the gunfire. In a less dramatic way, driving into the really poor part of town is like that. The onset of tent cities and strung out hoboes on the street is mostly experienced in life as a sensation that a) one has wandered into the wrong part of town, b) one should change routes, if possible, and c) a back of the mind feeling of hoping one’s car does not break down. Driving to the mission, in this metaphor, is the equivalent of having left the greenzone altogether and heading for the Fallujah of poverty. Of course, everyone else in the car has done this before and is relatively at ease – it’s only me seeing it for the first time.
Both in the car, and when I arrived inside the mission, we are the exception. Dysfunction is the norm, and the norm is all around us. To someone who generally associates homelessness with either drug use and/or mental illness, it is initially quite disconcerting to experience the sensation of being vastly outnumbered by the homeless. The instinct for self-preservation battles with the obvious cowardice and shame that such feelings generate. This is not a hostile army, and everyone here ought to be an object of pity. But the law of large numbers holds nonetheless – how many unstable people can one have in a room before the left tail of outcomes becomes dangerous? And yet here is this 5’4 blonde lady smiling and greeting me, seemingly unconcerned.
And, of course, it isn’t actually that bad, just unfamiliar. When we ascend the levels to meet people who have successfully gone through the programs to get their lives back on track, they seem relatively normal. We meet a man who is studying for a computer degree, and tells us he’s now been clean for 15 months. It’s really quite heartening. A lot of the people at the mission will only be in and out of the ‘emergency food’ section, where assistance is given without any questions. But for the ones that are trying to get their life back on track, I’m very glad to see that there are programs ready to help them.
The other fact that becomes very apparent is the reason the whole enterprise exists, evident from the signs on the walls and the people helping out at the center. The rescue mission is not staffed by economists or government social workers. It is staffed by Christian volunteers, as the various posters on the wall and the Chaplain in charge indicate. I am not a Christian, but I am glad they are there, toiling away at this kind of thankless task. If one ever needed a reminder that Christianity is not the problem with America, this was one. It motivates genuine selfless charity in a way that the default of consumerist secular humanism simply does not achieve. Of course, even the selfless often have personal reasons for being there. My friend’s brother in law ended up becoming very involved in the mission and donating a lot of money there after his own brother, who had been a drug addict, went through their program. The homeless live at the outskirts of society, and are easy to just look past, unless you have a particular reason to seek them out.
I drive back in the car, having mostly just been a silent observer during my time there. Going from the relative function of the program graduates back to the chaos of the tent cities outside, blending back into relieving normal society, reinforces the scope of the problem. How did all this happen? And was it always thus? George Orwell wrote of the tramps in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, and Dickens wrote of it even earlier. From talking with my friend’s sister, my preconception that a lot of the problem was mental illness is apparently overstated – a lot more of it, according to her, is just substance abuse. Some of the people who seem crazy actually just need to dry out, and they’re hallucinating at the moment.
It is tempting to see tent cities seem like an enormous failure of governance, and there is definitely a decent amount of truth to this. Whether the failure is a lack of money and support or a lack of police presence is a matter upon which people will disagree wildly, but the unsatisfactory nature of the status quo is hard to ignore.
Unfortunately, the narcissism of our age mistakes the feeling that ‘something ought to be done’ for the belief that as long as we vote for the right person (whoever that is) the problem will resolve itself. But does anyone really know how you deal with whatever it is that makes people start taking meth? Especially when they took it up even after seeing other meth addicts losing their teeth and turning into barely living skeletons (and then non-living corpses).
The lazy but satisfying response is outrage – substitute the feeling of pity and disgust for one of anger at some political force that is deemed to be responsible. Insufficient money. Lack of institutionalization of the mentally ill. Greater funding for substance abuse treatment. Stronger police action against vagrancy. Pick your chosen policy. They all make great soundbites and feel satisfying, but when you drive past the tent cities outside the rescue mission (and not for lack of space at the missions, either), it becomes apparent that there are a large number of real people in front of you who cannot find a reason in their life to stop taking self-destructive quantities of mind-altering substances, and this is actually an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve.
After all the policies are proposed, and some are even tried, few people today will tell you what was once considered received wisdom – the poor you will always have with you. When society as a whole was poorer, it used to be easier to convince ourselves that economic growth would take care of the problem. But it turns out the Biblical observation was wiser than we knew. If only the problem were just money. Money, we have now have substantial amounts of. What we do not have is a way to give purpose to the lives of those at the bottom of society. And if we have gotten any closer to solving the problem in the past few decades of growth, it is hard to see it.