To the extent we worry about the distribution of income, the primary focus should always be on helping the poor, as I argued in my posts
- “Rich, Poor and Middle-Class” and
- “Inequality Aversion Utility Functions: Would $1000 Mean More to a Poorer Family than $4000 to One Twice as Rich?”
Toward thinking about that end, I wanted to follow up my posts
- “Bill Dickens on Helping the Poor,”
- “Magic Ingredient 1: More K-12 School” and
- “When the Government Says ‘You May Not Have a Job’”
with a discussion of Jason Riley’s April 18, 2014 Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview with Robert L. Woodson Sr.: “A Black Conservative’s War on Poverty.” Jason introduces Robert this way:
Mr. Woodson, who remains fit and energetic at age 76, founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in 1981 after stints at the liberal National Urban League and conservative American Enterprise Institute. He is academically trained but wears his pragmatism on his sleeve. “We go around the country like a Geiger counter, looking at high-crime neighborhoods and asking the questions the poverty industry doesn’t.
Here is how Robert describes his own approach:
If we see that 70% of households are raising children out of wedlock, that means 30% are not. We want to know what the 30% are doing right. How are they raising kids who aren’t dropping out of school or on drugs or in jail? We seek them out—we call them the antibodies of the community—and put a microphone on them, and say, 'tell us how you did this.'
Robert points out one particular way that occupational licensing keeps many poor people poor:
… a lot of people coming out of prison have a hard time obtaining occupational licenses,” he says. Aspiring barbers, cabdrivers, tree-trimmers, locksmiths and the like, he notes, can face burdensome licensing requirements. Proponents of these rules like to cite public-safety concerns, but the reality is that licensure requirements exist mainly to shut out competition. In many black communities, that translates into fewer jobs and less access to quality goods and services.
Helping the poor is important enough, there should be competing liberal and conservative approaches. Here is Jason’s rendering of how Robert contrasts the two:
To illustrate the difference between his approach to community activism and a liberal’s, Mr. Woodson tells me about a pastor in Detroit who wanted to build 50 new homes in a ghetto neighborhood but couldn’t find financial backing or insurance. “If he had gone to someone on the left for help, they would have gotten their lawyers to sue the insurance company and the bank for redlining or something. What I did by contrast is arrange a meeting between the insurance executives and the pastor. They saw what he was trying to do, the people in the neighborhood he was employing. They saw someone developing human capital.” The insurance company got on board and a bank followed. With financing in place, the homes were built, as was a new restaurant currently run by a man who did 13 years in prison.
Robert describes one of the difficulties he faces in furthering a conservative approach to fighting poverty this way:
My challenge is to get more conservatives to understand that there are many people who are in poverty but not of it.
In other words, to the extent that culture is part of the cause of poverty, we should be pushing hard to find and empower the agents of changing the “culture of poverty,” not treating the “culture of poverty” as a given.
Robert is especially powerful in highlighting the way in which programs intended to help the poor are highjacked to help those already in the middle class:
Around 70 cents of every dollar designated to relieve poverty goes not to poor people but to people who serve the poor—social workers, counselors, et cetera, … We’ve created a poverty industry, turned poor people into a commodity. And the race hustlers play a bait-and-switch game where they use the conditions of low-income blacks to justify remedies … that only help middle-income blacks.
One cynical ploy in this vein is to use the language of civil rights to protect school teachers against the interests of the poor children they are supposed to serve. In Jason’s words:
A recent study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project criticized charter schools for being too racially segregated. Never mind that many of these charters outperform the surrounding neighborhood schools and that excellent all-black schools have long existed and predate Brown. Liberals remain convinced that black children must sit next to white children in order to learn. The Obama Justice Department currently is trying to shut down a Louisiana voucher program for low-income families on the grounds that it may upset the racial balance of public schools in the state.
One of the last notes in the writeup of the interview is about the effects of religious experiences on addiction and crime. Robert talks about that this way:
The most effective community leaders that I’ve seen and worked with all over the country agree that it’s transformation and redemption that changes the heart. They take you into communities and introduce you to hundreds of people who were former drug addicts and criminals, who tell you that prison couldn’t change them and a psychiatrist couldn’t change them but a religious or spiritual experience did. I don’t understand why it works. It’s irrational. But it works.
To me, a key research question should be how religious experiences do this trick. I believe that religious experiences help people out of addiction and criminality without the help of any supernatural forces. I want to know how they do work. This is the research agenda I discuss in my sermon “Godless Religion.”