Walter E. Williams

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans, President Bush gave America's poverty pimps and race hustlers new ammunition. The president said, "As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

 The president's espousing such a vision not only supplies ammunition to poverty pimps and race hustlers, it focuses attention away from the true connection between race and poverty.

 Though I grow weary of pointing it out, let's do it again. Let's examine some numbers readily available from the Census Bureau's 2004 Current Population Survey and ask some questions. There's one segment of the black population that suffers only a 9.9 percent poverty rate, and only 13.7 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. There's another segment that suffers a 39.5 percent poverty rate, and 58.1 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. Among whites, one segment suffers a 6 percent poverty rate, and only 9.9 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. The other segment suffers a 26.4 percent poverty rate, and 52 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. What do you think distinguishes the high and low poverty populations among blacks?

 Would you buy an explanation that it's because white people practice discrimination against one segment of the black population and not the other or one segment had a history of slavery and not the other? You'd have to be a lunatic to buy such an explanation. The only distinction between both the black and white populations is marriage -- lower poverty in married-couple families.

 In 1960, only 28 percent of black females ages 15 to 44 were never married and illegitimacy among blacks was 22 percent. Today, the never-married rate is 56 percent and illegitimacy stands at 70 percent. If today's black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits. The weakening of the black family structure, and its devastating consequences, have nothing to do with the history of slavery or racial discrimination.

 Dr. Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, argues in an article titled "Rediscovering the Underclass" in the Institute's On the Issues series (October 2005) that self-destructive behavior has become the hallmark of the underclass. He says that unemployment in the underclass is not caused by the lack of jobs but by the inability to get up every morning and go to work. In 1954, the percentage of black males, age 20 to 24, not looking for work was nine percent. In 1999, it rose to 30 percent, and that was at a time when employers were beating the bushes for employees. Murray adds that "the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive."

 I share Murray's sentiment expressed at the beginning of his article where he says, "Watching the courage of ordinary low-income people as they deal with the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, it is hard to decide which politicians are more contemptible -- Democrats who are rediscovering poverty and blaming it on George W. Bush, or Republicans who are rediscovering poverty and claiming that the government can fix it." Since President Johnson's War on Poverty, controlling for inflation, the nation has spent $9 trillion on about 80 anti-poverty programs. To put that figure in perspective, last year's U.S. GDP was $11 trillion; $9 trillion exceeds the GDP of any nation except the U.S. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita uncovered the result of the War on Poverty -- dependency and self-destructive behavior.

 Guess what the president and politicians from both parties are asking the American people to do? If you said, "Enact programs that will sustain and enhance dependency," go to the head of the class.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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