“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed! You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
– Andre Bauer, lieutenant governor of South Carolina
and candidate for S.C. governor.
It’s hard to know where to start with a statement like that. Apparently, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer believes that we should try to starve the poor out of existence. Deprive them of food and they will cease breeding: Problem solved, neat as that. (An audio version of Bauer’s remarks with additional context is available here. Hearing the vehemence with which Bauer makes the above statement only compounds its ugliness.)
For the moment, though, let’s set aside the pure viciousness of that statement and address what Bauer claims is his larger point. In effect, his thesis is that government assistance actually causes poverty because it subsidizes and encourages irresponsible actions. “In government, we continue to reward bad behavior,” he said. “Any time we give somebody money we’re rewarding them. We’re telling them to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Cut off those subsidies, in other words, and poverty will decrease.
In some circles, that’s a politically popular explanation for the problems of the underclass. So let’s take it seriously for a moment and try to test that analysis against what we know to be reality.
The first problem is history. Human poverty has existed in every culture and era, without exception. It is a constant of human existence, a pre-existing condition, so to speak. No matter what Bauer chooses to believe, government did not create it. South Carolina, for example, was mired in deep poverty long before school-lunch programs and welfare programs existed.
Second, if Bauer were right, we would expect that poverty would be lowest in those nations that do nothing to “subsidize bad behavior,” and highest in those countries where the government support system rewards such behavior. Yet if you look around the world, the opposite is true. Poverty levels are highest in those societies that make little attempt to address it, and lowest in those that offer some form of safety net.
We can also test Bauer’s thesis here at home, by comparing states that offer varying degrees of support for the poor. A liberal Northeastern state such as Connecticut, for example, offers a more extensive government support system to its poor than does a conservative state such as South Carolina. Mississippi offers even less support to its poor than does South Carolina. Put in Bauer’s terms, Connecticut rewards poverty while South Carolina and Mississippi try to penalize it.
If Bauer’s thesis is correct — if government support causes poverty — then Connecticut ought to be drowning in poor people while Mississippi has relatively few poor people. Yet in fact the exact opposite is true, and Census Bureau figures prove it. In Connecticut, which “subsidizes bad behavior” most heavily, 5.7 percent of families lived below the poverty line in 2007, while 16 percent did so in Mississippi, where poverty was least subsidized. (The figure in South Carolina was 11.2 percent; in Georgia it was 10.8 percent. And all those numbers are undoubtedly a lot higher in 2010.)
That data suggest that poverty is a much more complex phenomenon than Bauer would like to pretend, and is not in the least “caused” by government assistance.
Nor does government assistance encourage “breeding,” as Bauer so cruelly described it. It is demographic fact that in every culture and in every era throughout history, poorer families tend to have more children than affluent families. The presence or absence of government support has nothing to do with it. By the way, Bauer’s dismay is also nothing new; in cultures throughout time, the more affluent have always been dismayed by those “breeders” in the lower classes.
In his speech, Bauer recounts a second-hand tale of a 10-year-old child who supposedly gave birth to a baby of her own. If true, it is a tragic tale for both. Even if that particular story is false, the larger problem of teenage and out-of-wedlock births is very real and must be confronted honestly. However, that honest discussion must begin by acknowledging that the 10-year-old did not “breed” in response to financial inducements offered by the government.
Bauer did offer one concrete suggestion in his speech, proposing that parents be required to attend parent-teacher conferences and take drug tests or lose government benefits such as school lunch programs. If they want government benefits, he said, they should be required to act responsibly.
To any responsible person, that instinctively sounds great, but let’s think it through. The population that Bauer is attempting to target are by definition not responsible. They are parents who abuse drugs or simply don’t care enough about their children to ensure that they get a good education. Is that population going to change its behavior in response to a possible cutoff of free school lunches? Sadly, no. If they responded to that kind of thing, they wouldn’t be in that predicament in the first place.
And if you nonetheless go ahead and deny a free or subsidized lunch to a kid whose parents are on drugs, what have you accomplished? You condemn the child to hunger and malnutrition, heaping another significant problem on his or her already overburdened shoulders. You reduce the incentive for that child to go to school every day, where at least he or she knew food was available. And you make people like Andre Bauer feel better.
Bauer’s fundamental mistake is his assertion that the poor respond to market signals sent by the government. The real problem is that they don’t respond to market signals at all. Living in poverty ought to be a huge market signal, but for a variety of reasons, the poor are largely immune to it. Many of them don’t recognize what the signals are saying, they lack the education to know how to respond to them, and they have no faith that the market would reward them anyway.
Changing that is difficult; only a small percentage of those born into poverty escape it. Perhaps the best we can do is to champion programs — and the school lunch program is a perfect if small example — that increase the odds of escape for individuals mired in poverty.
One last point: In his speech and subsequent press release, Bauer complained that “political correctness” makes it impossible to discuss such issues publicly. I would suggest that rhetoric likening our fellow Americans to overbreeding stray animals makes it far more difficult to discuss these things rationally than does political correctness.