It’s almost a cliché that a nation is judged by how it treats it’s least well off. The US ain’t doing so well on that account, and most of the reason is how we think of the poor. The belief among some is that the poor deserve their poverty because they are lazy and refuse to work. Actually, though, they are neither lazy nor do they refuse to work.
Financial equality is not the goal. Few people who bother to think about it expect the wealth of a country to be evenly distributed. The goal is to treat the poor decently, not to make them rich.
Wealth is a finite resource. The wealth that accumulates at the top has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere starts at the bottom and percolates upward. “Trickle down” is nonsense that has been disproven dozens of times. What we need is equal opportunity, which is not as simple as it sounds.
Some end up in tent cities.
Let us start before the beginning.
Equal opportunity begins with the physical environment of a pregnant woman. It is well established that poorer neighborhoods typically contain more pollutants, from the land’s prior uses and from things like nearby power plants and factories. The soil in these neighborhoods often is contaminated with lead. The leaded paint in old houses is similarly dangerous, and as recent news has shown, sometimes so is the water. The danger of lead to the unborn and infant cannot be overstated. A child who eats even one old paint chip—and we all know that virtually everything goes into the baby’s mouth—may be permanently injured by the lead in the paint. That’s why the government program to remove this old leaded paint has been so successful.
Pregnant young poor women may be ignorant of the serious effects of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs on the new life within them, and may cause permanent brain injury to their child without realizing it. Education is therefore very important, especially for the poor, who have less opportunity to escape a bad environment.
The poor deserve access to decent housing, clothing, and food, and so on. The basics. Few would argue against that. But many people don’t realize that stores selling fresh foods often do not exist in poor neighborhoods. Likewise, things like doctors’ offices, civic services, and so on, are often at inconvenient distances.
Some end up in decrepit row homes.
No one thinks that all children are equally smart or talented, but we all must believe in equality of opportunity. The factors mentioned above strongly affect equality of opportunity. A child injured by environmental factors is denied this equality from the first.
There are those who believe that equal educational opportunity is wasted on poor children because they are not smart enough. Numerous examples exist to prove them wrong. In a number of cases a wealthy person has subsidized the college education of all students in a poor public school, which always increases the high school graduation rate to close to 100%, with a large percentage of these graduates also graduating from college.
The poor deserve access to all those things that define modern life. Defining these things, however, is not easy. Wealth has little to do with it. Nobody needs a 200-inch TV, or a new Mercedes. But we can also say that the poor deserve certain things, such as access to computers and modern drugs, because everybody deserves these things. To withhold them would be to punish the poor for being poor, no more acceptable than denying them polio vaccine, which has been around for 60 years. The poor deserve the more recent vaccines because these are things that everyone deserves.
Some end up in their cars.
We all also deserve the availability of expensive diagnostic tools such as MRI, and the latest expensive cancer treatment if we need it. Notice that few people could afford these things without insurance, but that poor people often can’t even afford insurance. This is a strong argument for national health care, which insures everyone at half the cost of private insurance.
Curing longstanding bad societal conditions is much more difficult, complicated by the presence of a few people who really don’t deserve much because they are criminals. However, criminal behavior is not part of the equation. Nobody argues that the criminal billionaire banker should be denied health care or computer access, yet there are those who claim that the poor criminal be denied them?
The difficulty with curing social conditions is that we must begin where we are, and where the poor live are often places of low opportunity, bad environment, and high crime. Ending this is a long-term project, measured in generations. It will take real equality of opportunity over a long time to overcome these things. On the other hand, many things have been cured instantly by a rich person adopting a public school and pledging to pay for every student’s college education. But note that here we are dealing with future generations, not those who were led into crime in the past because of lack of opportunity.
Absent such a promise by a wealthy person, low achievement will not yield to poorly funded efforts that end when the new mayor takes office because a miracle has not been achieved. While in the US we are unlikely to provide this necessary funding because so many on the right believe that the difficulties of the poor are their own fault, this prejudice is not true of more advanced countries. There, people who face similar problems are given additional resources.
It is tragic that so many right wingers, including Republican Governors and Congresspersons, create so much suffering among the poor because of their blind beliefs and their cruelty. They give ever more money to the very rich, and blame the poor for the resulting increased poverty.