Similarly, the Carter Administration (in one of its many triumphal “reforms” of domestic and foreign policy) established the United States Department of Education in 1979 – a bureaucratic monstrosity that now employs 5,000 hard-working officials and spends nearly $70 billion a year of the people’s money. Would anyone suggest that this new “cabinet level department” solved the problems in American education?
Yet Senator Clinton clings to the touchingly naïve belief that creating a similar department to cure poverty will bring every last American into the middle class with “no more excuses” and “no more whining.”
Her promise to “end poverty as we know it” deliberately echoes her husband’s 1992 pledge to “end welfare as we know it” – a pledge realized, thanks to the Gingrich-controlled Congress, in 1996. There’s a key difference, however: ending “welfare as we know it” meant terminating a government program, which is an undertaking well within the power of public officials. Ending poverty, however, means altering part of the human condition – which governments may attempt, but never can achieve.
No Secretary of Poverty, for instance, no matter how dedicated or talented or lavishly funded, will be able to prevent suffering for a fourteen year old girl who gives birth to a baby and drops out of high school while functionally illiterate. This same official will similarly fail to rescue a heroin addict and gang member who goes to jail for burglary and assault, and returns to a life of drugs and crime upon his release. An unskilled new immigrant with six children (even if all of them enter the country legally, with proper documentation) may need to go through several years (at least) of poverty, despite official determination to end inequality. There’s also little chance to give security to a family with small children whose father gambles away all resources at local casinos, even while compiling prodigious credit card debt to live above his means.
In other words, much of today’s poverty stems from bad choices and self-destructive behavior, rather than a lack of bureaucratic attention. The president may hector a new Secretary of Poverty (and every other Cabinet official, for that matter) with the daily question “what have you done today to end poverty in America,” but it’s safe to assume that poverty still won’t end. It’s a relative status in any event: today’s “poor”-- with their cell phones, color TV’s, DVD players, air conditioners, cars, Medicaid, free lunches and food stamps – would have been considered middle class some fifty years ago.
At a time of looming bankruptcy for Medicare and Social Security, the apparently straight-faced idea of launching yet another cabinet department (to complement other worthy recent additions like the briskly efficient Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and more) qualifies as a form of lunacy.
But then we’ve already got a Secretary of Health and Human Services to deal with such craziness.