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Uncle Sam's Plantation
How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can Do About It
By Star Parker
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Star Parker
All rights reserved.
What Is Poverty?
It was a hot and sticky 1968 summer evening in South Carolina. The only breeze was the air coming through the car windows. But as we traveled down the narrow street that led to Grandma Warreno's house, it was not the heat or the humidity that had me in a tizzy. I hated visiting my grandma's house; hated the old porch with posts so rotten it looked as if it would fall over at any moment; hated the cardboard nailed up to cover the holes in the wall. Lord knows how much I hated using that outhouse toilet. The only running water was in the kitchen, so we bathed in the backyard with the chickens, the spiders, and the mosquitoes.
Saying times were tough does not begin to describe my dad's life growing up. My grandpa died at a young age, leaving six adolescent sons to grow up in the Jim Crow segregated South with their widowed mother. It must not have occurred to my grandma that she needed anyone to alleviate her condition as she struggled to raise her boys without a husband and without complaint. Grandma pressed on without a dime from welfare. She grew her own food, trained her own kids, and paid her own way. All six grew to become professional and accomplished men.
It was not until Grandma Warreno was seventy-five years old that she looked to the government for help. She had been contributing Social Security and Medicare taxes all her working life, believing the political promise that her retirement and medical needs would be met. That is when she discovered that the government did not do a very good job saving her money. The Social Security check she received was barely enough to retain the financial independence she struggled sixty-nine years to maintain. After her third stroke by age eighty-three, Medicaid put a lien on her four-thousand-dollar home to cover the housing expenses of the substandard nursing facility they had guaranteed.
What is poverty? It seems a simple question on the surface. People think they know it when they see it. Yet ask any politician, religious leader, or even one who considers himself poor to define poverty, and you will receive a variety of responses. Every time I visit the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, I wonder if the folks there are the picture that most people see when asked to define poverty. Homeless men covered with filth, their clothes soiled and bedraggled, the smell of any one of them enough to make your eyes water. Corporately the stench is not breathable.
Maybe the picture of poverty is the daily routine a few blocks away from the mission, where postal workers fear for their lives to deliver welfare checks, and two-year-olds roam the halls of rundown, hour-rate motels. Wearing diapers as dirty as the garbage in the alley where they play, they giggle as they chase rats while Mom is making a drug buy or meeting her next trick.
Are the political pundits, scholars, and think tanks of today talking about my grandmother or the street hustlers when they pontificate on how to alleviate poverty? Which poor are we discussing in the halls of Congress, Ivy League colleges, or multimillion-dollar churches? A paralytic? A drug addict? Or perhaps folks like my mom and dad?
Dad worked hard to provide for his wife and five children on a military paycheck. After twenty years of air force service, Dad retired, completed a master's degree in education, and taught elementary school until cancer disabled him ten years before his death at age sixty-nine. Mom spent her working life as a domestic, hairdresser, seamstress, correctional facility house parent, and now, at age seventy-two, a horticulturist for an exporter of seasonal flowers. Standing barely five feet tall, Mother, as she demanded us five children address her, is the most financially content person I know. She has never made more than ten bucks an hour. Yet when I talk with her about political debates over a government-mandated livable wage, she laughs and says that people ought not complain about whatever they get. I think her attitude reflects the fact that my mom really enjoys the creative freedom she finds working for small business owners, and she knows that they cannot pay a lot.
One of nine children, my mother learned as a "young'un" that, more than anything else, poverty is a state of mind. Her father showed her by example how to live free. "Buy property and a gun" was his edict. His faith and convictions told him free men have a right to own property and to protect it. Only one generation from slavery, my granddaddy bought enough land in 1905 that today all of his children and grandchildren can retire in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina, without a mortgage. My personal lot is two and a half acres.
My mom's upbringing conditioned her to believe people should be free to live as they choose without imposed restraints. When at age sixty-nine, she found out that in order to collect Social Security she would have to cut her work hours to part-time, she was furious. To recover the Social Security payroll taxes the government had been taking from every one of her paychecks for the last fifty years, they could dictate when and how much she would work? "Oh no they won't," she threatened once. "I'll vote Republican!"
Discovering that her retirement came with a heavy price tag in the form of government control was a real slap in the face. She would genuinely miss her work. I had seen how my mom's countenance would brighten during snowy new Jersey winters as she looked upon the thousands of poinsettia plants her tender loving care had nurtured. The plants were ready for the grand moment of shipping all across the state. They would arrive in time for the Christmas sales. I think my mom missed that feeling of accomplishment much more than the loss of pay she had to endure in order to receive seven hundred dollars a month from Social Security.
A year into receiving her government retirement checks, some of the changes in Social Security made by Congress helped my mom reinstate her work hours, but we shouldn't be fooled. These changes were simply returning what was hers from the beginning. Though the political class on Capitol Hill touted it as real solutions for the elderly, in reality it was just another shameful display of the kind of control politicians have over other people's money.
WAR ON POVERTY
The Culture of Compassion, hand in hand with the mainstream media, offers varied descriptions of the poor today; so much so that guilt and pity have become mechanisms for wealth redistribution, and compassionate conservatism a political platform upon which to run for office. But do we even know who we are trying to save? Which poor is government to redeem? Are they all the same? The crying lack of a coherent answer to these questions is costing us dearly.
As Robert Rector points out in multiple studies for the Heritage Foundation, means-tested welfare spending in America exceeds $400 billion annually. That is a whopping 14 percent of the federal budget. That's more than a billion tax dollars per day being spent on various poverty programs, yet Rector's data shows that less than twenty cents of each dollar actually gets into the hands of the people society is trying to help. Eighty percent is bureaucracy.
Social concepts such as "permanent underclass" and "at-risk youth" have become pretexts for entire federal departments with multibillion-dollar budgets. Yet those classified into these categories are still in considerable social chaos. Out-of-wedlock birth rates have escalated to 30 percent nationally, 70 percent among African-Americans, according to the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. numbers from the national Center for Juvenile Justice showed that seven out of ten youths in our criminal justice system come from single-parent households.
Since there is clear evidence that family breakdown contributes to low academic and employment achievement, propensity for crime, drug use, and sexual promiscuity, perhaps we should ask why the money spent to alleviate poverty has discouraged traditional family formation. Does the fact that taxpayer investments in poverty programs have hurt the poor justify congressional hearings to investigate at least gross mismanagement, if not outright government corruption or political fraud? There's never an independent counsel around when you need one.
Inside-the-Beltway types have argued about government welfare programs since the Great Society began in the 1960s. Conservative think tanks have contended that liberal social engineers created an entitlement culture for illegitimacy and poverty to skyrocket. A burgeoning lower class of people dependent on the government will likely vote for the party that keeps the handouts coming, and the fundamental motivation of many politicians are to remain in power. Despite growing evidence that government dependency entrenches generational poverty, liberal and democratic organizations continue to claim that racism, sexism, and capitalism are responsible for the problems of the poor. Yet if true solutions were ever explored and expanded, left-wing groups that control all policy discussions surrounding poverty would be obsolete. Actually, if conservative principles of traditional values and free markets ever took root in our poor communities, ninety percent of the liberal campaign platform would evaporate.
After 40 years of a "war on poverty," a national debate ensued in 1994 when the Republican-controlled Congress aggressively sought to radically change welfare for the first time in its history and in 1996 former President William Jefferson Clinton to sign their reforms into law. Within two years, welfare rolls dropped in half. This encouraged several state governors to look for new ways to address generational poverty and incorporate the private sector into their programs. When President George W. Bush came to office in 2001, he desired to offer more opportunities for local communities to get funding to help the poor; therefore he proposed a new federal government welfare program called the "faith-based initiative."
But can solutions to poverty really come out of Washington D.C.? Many conservatives of perhaps good intentions are finding out now that Ronald Reagan was right in believing the "the answer to poverty is freedom and personal responsibility, not the welfare state," and thus the "faith-based initiative" was a bad idea. What kind of answers did they think could ever come from encouraging religious institutions to receive tax-funded government checks for charity work?
Most liberal religious organizations believe federal government should assist the poor through centralization, with no judgment that the poor person is at all to blame for his condition. These groups readily support government coercion over taxpayers to subsidize and run poverty programs. On the flip side, most conservative religious organizations insist on rugged individualism and believe it is the responsibility of the poor person to change his condition. As such, these groups typically oppose government subsidies and entitlements. How does the federal government control which poor people these faith-based groups are to help, or not help for that matter? How does the religious institution control its mandate to set up parameters for assisting people in need? This path is fraught with hazards once separation of Church and State is considered.
For hundreds of years, religious people have prayed every day that the needy not be forgotten nor the hope of the poor be taken away. This prayer request is in the denominational liturgy of Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans. For the followers of Mosaic Law, practicing acts of charity is mandatory, so Jews throughout history have established and supported a plethora of private assistance networks in their communities. There are many signs throughout our society that there is no shortage of desire to help people in need. Even some unconventional religious, faith-based, and secular organizations have programs to serve the underprivileged and downtrodden.
Questions still linger, however, regarding what qualifies as need, what type of assistance would really help, and who should pay for it. Our corporate response to poverty has been less than commendable. We cannot even agree on a standard definition of poverty. now, with forty-five years of participating in a "War on Poverty," declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, would someone please tell me again what exactly it is we are fighting? And with such an astronomical capital investment, why aren't we winning?
I do not ask this question of politicians because the term poverty has become so subjective and self-serving in most of their minds that it is faceless. Poverty in political terms simply means manipulating tax dollars to keep a variety of federal, state, county, and local bureaucracies functioning and government workers employed. Neither have I asked this question of religious leaders, for their answers must follow the form of their specific programs, at the expense of certain objective criteria. Most private charities are struggling financially for existence or begging for mobilized volunteers, each trying to hold its own beachhead in the war on poverty.
So who will define poverty today?
In order to get a clear picture of what poverty looks like, so we can decide if we should continue this social experiment and expand it into the mainstream, I want to separate today's poor into three general groups:
1. The economically challenged
2. The lazy poor
3. The poor in spirit
To be fair, many wealthy people might fit some of the characteristics I will use to describe these three groups; however, to establish some ground rules for this book, I will be focusing on the people in these groups who have little or no money. Once you understand the circumstances, behavioral patterns, and choices of today's poor, you will agree that the battle we face is complex; therefore it cannot be solved with one-size-fits-all government handouts to individuals or to organizations.
If the illustrations herein seem crass, please keep in mind that the examples describe real people in real situations—people who have been assured by sociologists, psychologists, pathologists, and academics that someone else will solve their problems; people convinced that there are political remedies for their dilemma whatever that dilemma might be, and that society is going to help them.
Keep in mind that although I run a think tank today, I am not one of the learned elite who have only studied the poor: I am one who lived the welfare life, overcame it, and still has friends, family, and associates in each group.
No one is served by sugarcoating the issue, especially as average hard-working Americans today are faced with job layoffs, upside-down mortgages, economic uncertainties, and new government promises that Uncle Sam can and will rescue them.
These situations are real, often desperate, and we must open our eyes to the reality of what poverty has become since government got involved in creating solutions. The painful truths of these situations show clearly that as long as we allow mere economics and materialism to define poverty, the poor will never be equipped to battle the unseen enemies in their midst, and the rest of America will continue to be subjects of political demagogues.
Excerpted from Uncle Sam's Plantation by Star Parker. Copyright © 2010 Star Parker. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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