Aid shield

As a nation, we’ve been distracted of late by matters electoral and royal. As a result we’ve not been being paying much attention to events elsewhere in the world – such as the Baltimore riots.

Baltimore, which is Washington’s next door neighbour, is familiar to us in Britain as the setting and subject of The Wire – which provides an unflinching portrait of the city’s troubles. Beset by poverty, crime and racial tension, the real-life tragedy of the riots comes as no surprise.

Writing about the situation for the New York Times, David Brooks argues against the knee-jerk calls for more government spending:

“The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

“Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.”

Even in respect to the long-term investment in education, there’s only so much that mere money can achieve:

“…American public spending on schools is high by global standards. As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.”

Brooks is no anti-welfare headbanger…

“It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people.”

…but he understands what welfare has failed to achieve:

“…all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.”

On both sides of the Atlantic we’ve seen a popular backlash against the benefits culture. It would be nice to think that this is driven by a deeper understanding of the social problems we face and of the need to focus on the effectiveness not the amount of state spending. And yet, as we’ve seen in Britain in regard to the NHS, if a cause is popular then political promises still centre on financial inputs rather than outcomes.

This is something that the left is largely responsible for. Indeed, it is now going backwards on the issue. Whereas Blair and Brown at least paid lip service to the need for reform in the public sector, Miliband and Sturgeon only care about the price tag.

However, the right has also gone wrong. While we compete with the left in promising cash for the popular causes, we indulge the harsh side of populism in regard to the unpopular causes – especially those regarded as the ‘undeserving poor’.

It is quite right for us to preach the virtues of personal responsibility, but only if we cultivate the conditions within which virtue is nurtured. As David Brooks puts it, when they “are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted… it is phenomenally hard for young people… to guide themselves.”

To the extent that any of us get anywhere in life it is because someone has pointed out the way. But if the fingers are simply pointed at you, then that gets you nowhere at all.

8 comments for: An American reminder about simply throwing money – or condemnation – at social problems

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