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July 22, 2010, at 12:45 am — Blogs | debate | Writers' Debate / / / /

AVJ WRITERS’ DEBATE: Poverty and the Government

Welcome to our second ever writers’ debate. The first debate generated a fantastic discussion on profiteering off the sick and poor. This time around, our topic again involves poverty.

We post an assertion to be argued for or against, and ask all of our writers to come to the table for a good honest debate. Comments are now open to all readers.

Neither is it the government’s duty, nor is the government well-equipped, to make broad attempts to lift people out of poverty.


4 comments to AVJ WRITERS’ DEBATE: Poverty and the Government

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Definitely disagree, in a limited sense. I think that to “promote the general welfare”—as our Constitution suggests our government is expected to do—should not mean fully financially supporting every individual without an income, or with too little income to afford sustenance and shelter. In many cases, that’s what friends, family, community, church, and charity are for.

    I also do not think this means we abandon all poor people to fend for themselves at all times. I entirely agree with the tax burden lightening at the low end of the income spectrum, and the lowest people on that scale paying no taxes at all. And I think the idea of a “safety net” is always worthwhile, mostly in cases that involve sudden change (unemployment) or extreme circumstances (severe illness, drug addiction, the welfare of children). These are the times our government should step in to actually try to better a situation.

    Where I get stuck is on long-term welfare and food stamps. I believe we have to help folks—we can’t let people starve—so I guess that puts me more in the pro-welfare camp. But I don’t like it, because I know that if I were in that situation I would hate it. Every day I would hate taking government money just to get by. And I would be trying my best to dig out of the hole, but what if I were paraplegic? What if I had debilitating chronic conditions? What if I was fighting cancer for years? What if I couldn’t find work and couldn’t afford to retrain? What if I had three young kids to complicate the situation?

    I’m all about being able to word your opinions in the least appealing way so that you know you really support your own stance and are being fair and honest. I guess this means I’m willing (barely?) to pay a portion of my own money to a government that’s probably distributing that money in an inefficient way to a group of people that surely includes some folks who don’t belong there or are lazy or cheating the system. I’m willing to do this to help provide the safety net for those people who aren’t getting the help they need from friends, family, church, community or charity. The cons to the situation are very strong, but the postitives outweigh them.

    The reverse angle: is anyone out there willing to say that they’d take the risk that many (perhaps millions) of the young, the old, the chronically ill, or the disabled might suffer because you believe so strongly that the government should not be supporting the poor?

  • Matthew Tullman

    Mr. Olsen is correct: the Constitutional commitment to “promote the general welfare” does not, or at least did not at the time of the framing, assume the government would provide room and board for each citizen. And in a perfect world, friends, family, civil organizations, charities, and the like would carry this burden willfully. But we do not live in a perfect world.

    In the days of the feudal system of Europe, and what remains in many Asiatic cultures today, the extended family is a closely knit unit, assuming the responsibility to care for each member—from the time the individual is hatched, even after he/she is matched, and through the time he/she is dispatched. But as the liberal democracy of America progressed, individualism spiraled away from this model. The nuclear family became the singularly important unit of society, and the individual the most important of all. From the capitalistic perspective, this allows for great success and wealth; from the welfare-state perspective, this allows for an ever-increasing gap in prosperity. As a response to the latter effect, the government—the liberal democracy—steps in to correct this imbalance; that is, the government ensures equality in the economic realm as much as in any other.

    Liberalism is an ideology, for better or worse, devoted to the principles of freedom and equality. Is an individual working for fourteen hours per day, and still barely able to feed himself or a family, truly a free person? Before minimum-wage laws and working-standards were enforced, the capitalist system created what many viewed as a social institution eerily similar to slavery—“a slave to the wage”. Hence, Karl Marx and Communism—should we revisit the Constitution?

    Mr. Olsen provides a summary of the pros and cons many individuals with a conscience weigh in attempting to understand the welfare state, especially as we debate financial reform bills, extending unemployment benefits, and, not to mention, the looming implosion of Social Security.

    But before we condemn the welfare-United States, imagine the nation as a whole: a rising tide, will raise each ship. Should the government send troops abroad and innovate new supersonic missile technologies for trillions? Or spend a few dollars on a bowl of soup to ameliorate the plight of a single sinking ship?

  • Joanna Lord

    While to a large extent, I do not believe it is the government’s duty per se to lift people out of poverty, I don’t know that I agree that the government is not well-equipped to lend this type of extension. The government is simply not “able “ to lift people out of poverty because resolving the issue of poverty is not a governmental priority. We are spending more on an elusive “war on terror”. Interesting how an entire war can be waged against a concept and be publicly supported, but that argument isn’t necessarily relative to this topic…

    Poverty at large is unfortunately a cycle. It would be more productive and beneficial to increase social programs dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty. Statistically, roughly 60% of the homeless in the US suffer from mental health problems, and it might be more beneficial to provide some sort of social program dedicated to resolving the root of the problem, not just simply providing people a “band-aid”, which essentially is what aid such as financial, food, and clothing does. These resources do not attack a central issue.

    Of course, American’s waste resources to a terrifying degree, and what could be used to assist those who are impoverished tends to get gobbled down at our local hot-dog eating contest, as we stand comatose in amazement at the portly gentlemen who was able to accomplish such an outstanding feat. Is inadequate funding really the problem? Before I get too hot-headed here, allow me to point out that the U.S Department of Agriculture’s findings state that up to 1/5 of food in the U.S goes to waste annually, with approximately 130 llbs. of food per person making its way into landfills, an estimated $31 billion in annual value. It looks as though America herself is guilty of several “deadly sins”. I may have sauntered a bit here, and I’ll have much more to highlight about this topic in my blog. Just some food for thought, no poor attempt at a pun intended.

  • Jeremy Olsen


    To me, the problem of the government trying to solve the issue of poverty is that it is such a local and personal issue. People in Appalachia may be poor because their families have lived in outlying agricultural areas for years and have historically lacked access to a good education or good jobs. People in Oakland may be poor because of a cycle of drugs and violence and fear. People in Flint may be poor because they work in a trade that is hemorrhaging job opportunities and they cannot afford to move and/or retrain. And individuals scattered all over the country are poor because of a huge variety of illnesses and injuries that have left them unable to earn a sufficient wage (or any wage)—as you mentioned with mental illness. Poverty in each of these circumstances has a different root cause, and so in that way “poverty” could be seen as not even a problem but symptom of other problems.

    Communities, churches, family and friends have the power to address these causes much more effectively than national government. Even local government can do much more. My understanding of this grew significantly with my interview with Brian Center of A Better L.A.. I think a lot of that group’s solutions to the problem of gang violence would ultimately either address or have a positive secondary effect on poverty. They are bringing together police departments and gang members and community leaders and businessmen and all sorts of folks with local knowledge and a stake in the outcome. It’s hard to imagine the federal government doing anything so targeted or efficient.

    I agree we waste resources. I think the government, in this age of pervasive media, might do best to spend more money on public awareness and education, working to inform opinions and shape outcomes, and this could target the area of wastefulness among many other things. I think the government could also work to encourage the sorts of local effort that A Better L.A. embodies, and that this approach could apply to the problem of waste as well.

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