Poverty, society, and government

According to my trusty Webster’s New World Dictionary, society is defined as a group of persons forming a single community or the system of living together in such a group.

Government, as defined by professors Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore Lowi, and Margaret Weir, is the institutions and procedures through which a territory and its people are ruled.  To govern is to rule.

I recently posted on my Facebook page the question, “Are government and society the same?”  The responses were roughly 50-50.  The reason I posted the question resulted from my musings about whether it is the responsibility of government to solve the issue of poverty or whether this task was best left up to society.

One commentator reconciled the two, admitting that government and society were not the same, but that government as a construct and reflection of society could be used by society to resolve the poverty issue.

Fair enough, but should government be used for that task?  Is government even equipped for the task?

If to govern is to rule, and government is this artificial construct subject to hostile take-over every two years with the victor taking the spoils, the existence government may be used as proof that the “haves” gained their wealth at the expense of the “have-nots” and that the only way to bring balance is to transfer some of that wealth by force.  While that may be society’s view of government, I argue that was never the intent of the Framers and today that should not be government’s purpose.

The intent of this artificial construct was to yes, govern, but to govern with the goal of protecting individual liberties.  Nowhere in our Constitution does it say that government is to address wealth imbalances between the haves and have-nots even if society feels those imbalances should be addressed.  Society should and can use other tools to address poverty without using the enormous authority and power of government.

It’s not that government is purposed and designed to combat poverty.  Government’s involvement in the eradication of poverty resulted only from the hostile takeover of government by those who believe that government should be treated as the hub for wealth distribution.

I would also argue that the progressive faction that acquired government did not determine that government programs provided an optimal solution for eradicating poverty, but rather that offering poverty programs was an optimal way of getting votes.

Fortunately, society and government are not the same which gives society the flexibility to pursue a non-governmental solution to eradicating poverty short of involuntary wealth transfers.

About Alton Drew

Alton Drew brings a straight forward and insightful brand of political market intelligence. Alton Drew graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can also follow Alton Drew on Twitter @altondrew.
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2 Responses to Poverty, society, and government

  1. Ken Ciszewski says:

    “I would also argue that the progressive faction that acquired government did not determine that government programs provided an optimal solution for eradicating poverty, but rather that offering poverty programs was an optimal way of getting votes.”

    I’ve heard that argument a lot, but don’t think getting votes was the original intent. (That may have been a side benefit later.) The “War on Poverty” started in the 1960s was, in my opinion, an attempt to address a huge problem, which, if left to fester, might have led to other problems. Remember that Karl Marx thought the working class would over throw the capitalists and set up an equalitarian society. That revolution didn’t happen in the US (it actually never happened anywhere else either in exactly that way) partly because trade unions negotiated with business to “share the wealth” with workers in the form of better working conditions and wages in response to the exploitative working conditions of the sweat shops of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The reason it never happened anywhere else is that all human beings, by nature, are not equalitarian–there are always at least a few “empire builders” who want to take the place over and run it for their own advantage at the expense of every body else. This is what the Russian Communists actually did.

    This “empire building competitiveness” is what we need to deal with, because it is part of the reason we have poverty. The economy is a zero sum game at any moment in time–there is only so much money to go around. If some have a lot, there may be little for others. I know, there’s all that “opportunity” out there. Guess what: opportunity isn’t money in the hand, it’s not money in the pocket or the bank, and it doesn’t pay the bills. For those of us who are doing well, it’s tempting to say “Hey, if some people can’t cut it, let them be poor.” However, anyone can fall on hard times, and need some assistance to get back on their feet. And there are some people, it appears, can never over come being poor.

    There was program on PBS yesterday about how a particular middle school has developed an intervention program to help students who are risk to drop out of high school later. One young woman was found to be at risk, and was given a lot of practical help (bus passes to help get to school, for instance), encouragement, and mentoring. She did much better as a result, and is now on her way to a high school that will help her get the education she needs to get into college, which is where she wants to go. She spoke about her experience, and it’s clear that she is a very intelligent person. Without the help she was given, it was doubtful that she would ever have a chance to make it out of poverty through education.

    How much human capital are we wasting because we don’t want help others so they can find a way out of poverty? Why are we so mean spirited when it comes to helping the poor? There are those who claim that we are a Christian nation, who want the values of Christianity to be what we follow as governing principles. Two of those values are compassion for and help for others. Why do we see so little of that?

  2. Ken Ciszewski says:

    My first reply really didn’t address the main question posed by Alton’s essay, so I would like to do that now.

    It seems to me that the principle problem cited, when all is said and done, is that government should not be redistributing wealth, that there is no constitutional authority to do so. This is discussed within the context of “eradicating” poverty.

    I know that politicians at one time made noises about eradicating poverty, but realistically I don’t think that’s achievable. The best we will do is keep some people from starving, and help others stay afloat until they can get back on their feet, so to speak.

    The US Constitution gives Congress the power to tax. Except for the original ban on individual income tax, which was later changed by amendment, there aren’t any specific restrictions on what or how Congress may tax that I am aware of.

    There are no restrictions, for instance, on how taxes are legislated and levied. Congress has routinely taxed different taxpayers in different ways. We sometimes refer to these different ways as “tax rates”, “tax breaks” or “loopholes”. I would argue that the very existence of differential “tax rates”, “tax breaks” and “loopholes is in itself redistribution of wealth, even if none of the money collected is used to give welfare to the poor.

    For example, the famous mortgage interest tax deduction given to homeowners has been with us for a long time. In essence, someone who buys a home gets to deduct the mortgage interest paid on Schedule A for Form 1040 provided it is more than a certain percentage of his income, and if it, and other similar deductions taken on Schedule A exceed the amount of the standard deduction listed on the back of Form 1040.

    So, given two people who make the same amount of money and would otherwise pay the same Federal Income Tax, if one can deduct mortgage interest, he pays less tax than, say, someone who rents an apartment or leases a townhouse or condominium but doesn’t own the property.

    If we believe that we all have an equal stake in supporting our government, and therefore should all contribute equally to that support, then it strikes me that this deduction is a form of redistribution of wealth, because one taxpayer ends up with more money to spend than another because he pays less in taxes, while the other pays a larger share for support for government functions. Also, the deduction may be the critical factor in whether or not a person can actually afford to buy a home. This means that this tax deduction also allows the transfer of wealth from the homeowner who bought the home to the bank who holds the mortgage, the title company who insures the title, the real estate agent who sold the property, the insurance company who insures the house, and the various taxing authorities who collect real estate property tax. Talk about a multiplier effect!

    By this logic, any tax deduction that causes one taxpayer to pay an unequal share of tax relative to another would be redistribution of wealth. This suggests we should go to a flat tax system and forbid all tax loopholes, deductions, and tax breaks. Maybe the libertarians have something after all.

    What I find interesting about this discussion in the first place is that it’s discussed in the context of helping the poor. Why was it not also discussed in the context of helping the rich, businesses, and corporations? Why not use a similar argument that government doesn’t need to be involved in giving tax breaks, special deductions, TIF money, and loopholes to businesses and the rich? Why not let the private sector help the rich, businesses, and corporations, just like Alton is proposing that society but not government help the poor? Businesses could have fundraisers like non-profit agencies often do. They could get celebrities to contribute to their cause (think Jerry Lewis’ famous telethon to help kids with muscular dystrophy. No disrespect to Jerry or his cause is intended by this comment. I’m a great admirer of his efforts in this regard).

    But there are other points to be made about why government should be involved.

    First, government is charged to promote the “General Welfare”. In my opinion, having people starving in our country does not promote the general welfare. We have enough street crime now where people with guns mug, rob, and carjack their fellow citizens. I don’t even want to think what it would be like if there were no welfare available to help the poor. When others are poor, it may end up not being good for those of us who are better off. I don’t think we could hire enough police to adequately protect ourselves.

    Second, business is not going to help very much in this regard. Frankly, helping the poor is not in most vision and mission statements written by businesses today. It’s not what they do. The recent slow growth of private sector jobs is a case in point. Banks and businesses are reported to be sitting on $2 trillion that they are not investing in ways that would create jobs. They’re doing just fine as they are, and are not motivated to help. Some are creating more jobs offshore than they are in the USA.

    Third, the government can have influence in multiple areas. It can foster educational opportunity by providing student loans, aid to school districts, etc. It can offer incentives to business to hire and train the unemployed (there’s that redistribution of wealth again!). It can provide short-term assistance like unemployment benefits (business almost never offer this). It is in a much better position to help in many areas.

    Fourth, do we have any compassion for our fellow citizens who are less well off than we are? Why not share some tax money to help them.

    Do we want to help our fellow citizens, or not?

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