Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poverty and Politics

When I was an undergraduate at The University of Texas, I took an unforgettable government class, from a professor named Henry Dietz, called "Poverty and Politics." 
According to Dr. Dietz, all poverty policy is created from one of two approaches:  structural or cultural.

If you believe that poverty is structural, you think that people are poor because, try as they might, the system is not accessible to them.  If you are a policy maker who believes poverty is structural, you might try to pass laws that do things like expand transportation services, improve schools, or make housing (or health care) more affordable. 

If you believe that poverty is cultural, you think that people are poor because, even though the system is accessible to them, their immediate social environment prevents them from taking advantage of opportunities.  If you are a policy maker who believes poverty is cultural, you might try to influence the culture, by providing opportunities for education and role modeling.  Or you might believe it's not government's place to do anything at all, since poor people need to change themselves.

Which one is "true"?  They both are!  It varies from individual to individual, which one has more impact--structure or culture--even within one poor family.  That's why people can say, "Look at so-and-so!  He rose up from nothing!"  And it probably varies over the course of one individual's lifetime. 

Legislation is, indeed, a blunt instrument, especially if we're talking about federal legislation in a country as large and diverse as the U.S.  People can say that "government doesn't fix X, Y, or Z," but that statement will inherently miss part(s) of the picture--either who needs fixing, or what might fix them.  It will also overlook the fact that, in our glorious representative democracy with term limits, "government," like the population, is a changing body.

And I would also add my own theory:  poverty is spiritual.  Interestingly, this kind of poverty afflicts all kinds of folks, and doesn't care how much money you have.  In this case, the politician might not be as effective as the minister--or even better yet, the present, active, and engaged parents and community, from square one.


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