In 1859, Joshua Norton, an Englishman living in San Francisco, took the unusual path in life of declaring himself Emperor of the United States. He issued “manifestos” proclaiming his decisions on this and that (at one point he announced that he had dissolved the United States Congress), and he became a bit of a local celebrity. As Emperor, of course, he was entitled to whatever he wanted, and in the free and easy spirit of the times, San Francisco merchants cheerfully obliged. Wherever “Emperor Norton I” went, he was served food and drinks, provided with clothes, given hotel rooms, all at no charge. People around the Bay area greeted him on the street as Emperor, and apparently it was all good, colorful fun. When Emperor Norton died in 1880, over 30,000 lined the streets for his funeral procession.
Emperor Norton made no goods and performed no services, yet he was able to enjoy the goods and services of others. Emperor Norton, though, was the exception that proves a rule. (Besides, if everyone became Emperor Nortons, we would all soon die of exposure or starvation as everyone strolled around issuing imperial proclamations instead of growing food and building houses.)
The rule for which Emperor Norton was an exception, is that in order to receive the goods and services of others, one must first make goods or services for others. In a modern economy, basically two things happen: (1) People make goods and services; and (2) People receive goods and services. Goods and services do not fall from the sky, except for people like Emperor Norton. Food, clothing, and housing result from the productive effort of people, people working individually and in groups.
Consequently, the best way to increase the amount of goods and services someone receives is to improve their ability to make goods and services for others. A successful “anti-poverty” program, then, would increase the value of goods and services poor people make.
Which is, of course, one reason anyone seeks education and training. An unskilled young person just out of high school could work as a day laborer for $9 an hour. Or, they might sign up for a course on automobile repair, and increase the value of the services they can provide to $16 an hour. Similarly, the dentist learns to clean teeth, the baker learns to bake cakes, and the plumber learns to install piping.
Yet the crucial importance of developing the skills and habits of the poor is frequently overlooked. Sometimes this oversight is the result of viewing the poor as fairly helpless. A 2014 article by the Center for American Progress listed “The Top 10 Solutions to Cut Poverty and Grow the Middle Class”:
1) Create Jobs
2) Raise the Minimum Wage
3) Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers
4) Support pay [gender] equity
5) Provide paid leave and paid sick days
6) Establish work schedules that work
7) Invest in affordable, high-quality child care and early education
8) Expand Medicaid
9) Reform the criminal justice system and enact policies that support successful re-entry
10) Do no harm [referring to preserving welfare programs]
The poor themselves are not active participants in the solution, apparently. The article refers only casually to “education and training programs,” when those should be at the top of the list. I don’t disagree with everything on the list – I particularly support criminal justice reform, and helping convicts prepare to reenter the working world – but all the Center for American Progress sees is government action. That entire to-do list could be completed, and it would do very little for a poor person with no skills.
Another persistent myth that obscures the issue is the belief that the cause of poverty is the very existence of the rich. As I discussed in an article about income inequality, the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. Bryant University professor Keith Murray makes the same point in a Forbes article entitled Rich People Don’t Have Money the Poor Would Otherwise Have. The fallacy that wealth is a “zero-sum” game – that every dollar to the rich is a dollar less for the poor – implies that poverty is simply an income redistribution matter. That misdiagnosis causes many people to overlook, or deny, the value of developing the skills and abilities of the poor.
The fact that the poor themselves often need to improve their skills and abilities is not “blaming the victim.” It is taking a tough fact into account in developing solutions to the problem of poverty.
And to be clear, the problem of poverty is complex, and there is no simple answer. The poor face extraordinary problems and circumstances. I am aware of the advantage of growing up in a secure home in a safe neighborhood with educated parents. The point is simply that helping develop the ability of the poor to produce goods and services must be part of any successful anti-poverty program. The baker learned to bake, the dentist learned to take care of teeth. What goods or services can a poor person provide? The list is as endless as human needs and desires.