The storm over poverty

Posted: Sep 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Hurricane Katrina was so powerful it brought LBJ back from the grave.

Well, actually not President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself; it's his "War on Poverty" that's back on top of the talk heap. TV's talking heads, a slew of politicians, and a bevy of social welfare organizations now push for a renewed effort against poverty.

But their own poverty of sense is showing.

Hurricane Katrina didn't illuminate a need for a new War on Poverty. It's the spectacular failure of the last such misnamed "war" that's in the bright light of day. Forty years after a myriad of Great Society programs, the fact is that many people are still poor — about the same percentage as back in 1968. Unfortunately, those who see government as the solution for every problem, especially those caused by their last attempted solution, have never let results, inconvenient facts, or common sense get in their way.

NAACP President Bruce Gordon praised Bush's speech to the nation this week, but pushed for government to go further, to usher in utopia: "Now what we need to see is whether he will use the George Bush-style conviction to eliminate poverty."

Eliminate poverty . . . with a stroke of the pen? Is it really that easy?

Bishop T.D. Jakes, the leader of a 30,000-person congregation in Dallas, called on Americans to help the poor, saying we should "love them enough to pay the bill."

Does the commandment to love one's neighbors really mean paying all their bills? In my book, sometimes love means not paying another's bills.

Senator Ted Kennedy intoned that "we cannot be an America of haves and have-nots." Look for his check in your mailbox.

We're even told that Hurricane Katrina — by breaching the levees, flooding New Orleans, and breaking down the framework of civil society — may have been a blessing in disguise. That's a heckuva disguise.

New Orleans ranks 12th in the percentage of residents below the poverty line. The rank tracks something, but poverty line statistics mislead more than enlighten. For example, these statistics rarely differentiate between the temporarily poor and more permanently impoverished individuals. Nor do they help explain why some folks living in so-called poverty are the envy of others around the globe.

Most poverty isn't caused by storms. Or even bad luck. Most poverty is caused by poor decision-making. Having children out of wedlock, abusing drugs and alcohol, or putting personal pleasure above responsible action are problems much too personal to be cured by politicians and bureaucrats. Or by more money, either.

Many of us have been poor at one time or another. But those truly stuck in poverty are usually suffering from a lack of character, something no government can provide.

Except perhaps by tough love. What's that? It's the love that dares not reward or excuse bad behavior, that does not blame productive people for the poverty of those who refuse to produce, and that steps back and lets human nature do its work. People have survived on the planet a long time, even before government programs to battle poverty.

One of America's biggest causes of poverty is fatherlessness. It is a problem that our society can discourage, but government can do little to solve. A government check certainly doesn't create a father.

Even conservatives have some trouble with this logic. Rich Lowry wrote an otherwise cogent column for National Review Online that concluded with hopes for action from the federal government, suggesting "a grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the Left in exchange for the Right's support for more urban spending" because "anything is worth addressing the problem of fatherlessness."

Two problems: I can't afford more "urban spending" — nor rural, nor suburban spending, come to think of it — and government may "address" fatherlessness and Leftists can even pay "attention" to it, but only individual fathers and mothers can stop it.

These are personal choices. People's actions can be subsidized or taxed, they can preached at or ignored, but these choices cannot be legislated and the consequences of poor choices — namely poverty — cannot be solved by bureaucrats or politicians.

Government can defend the country and even clean up after hurricanes . . . with varying results. But it cannot be our minister, our parents, our friend. That's what the rest of us are here for.