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The Key to Achieving “Lift-Off” for the Poor

In a recent column, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof relays the story of 3-year-old Johnny Weethee. Johnny was deaf as an infant, but no one noticed until he was 18 months old—too late to restore his hearing with timely medical care. He now struggles to speak.

Kristof blames this sad truth on Johnny’s economic disadvantage. He and his mother live in West Virginia, where almost one-fifth of children are born with drugs or alcohol in their systems and poverty is rampant. Parents don’t know enough about child development, Kristof writes, which is due at least in part to the long hours mothers like Johnny’s must work to make ends meet.

The story is sad and, to use Kristof’s word, even “infuriating.” It doesn’t seem fair for a child to struggle his entire life because of an avoidable oversight in his earliest years. It seems out of place in a society with more than 9 million millionaires. It doesn’t jive with our social conscience. As Kristof writes, economic safety nets are important, but so is helping children who, by no choice or failing of their own, live in harsh financial circumstances.

In that respect, Kristof is right. We can’t ignore the plight of those born into poverty—those who, like Johnny, have to suffer with the reality of their parents’ unforgiving economic circumstances.

But Kristof’s proposed solutions won’t work. Despite his best efforts to do more than treat the “symptoms” of poverty, his ideas fail to address poverty’s true cause.

“Let’s push for home visitation programs that encourage parents to speak to children and read to them,” he writes. “We need an integrated set of early interventions, starting with family planning […], outreach efforts to help pregnant women curb use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco […], free at-home help for new moms who want to breastfeed […], [and] initiatives to reduce exposure to lead and other toxins.”

Yes, we need all these things. But these remain temporary patches for mere symptoms of the problem at hand. No doubt, reaching out to poor children with medical care and education bring relief, as organizations like Save the Children know too well. And in some obtuse way, I see why treating children instead of adults can be construed as treating causes instead of symptoms. But even catching a problem at its earliest stages of development does not necessarily treat its cause. When it comes to poverty, this is especially true.

[pq]Safety nets aren’t for lifting off. They are for catching falls. Lift-off requires a firmer foundation.[/pq]

I’ve written before that both bad laws and bad choices make life harder. The converse of this is that both better laws and better choices will make life easier—a principle that applies here. Economic initiatives and social programs designed to help the poor reduce the immediate pain of poverty for millions. But until the poor (especially poor parents) commit to transforming their lives, programs like those Kristof proposes will continue to only treat symptoms.

I’m not saying poor people are more prone than others to immorality, or that being poor is the result of a moral failing. Everyone has moral problems, poor or rich. What I am saying is that energies expended to empower and educate are spent in vain if not accompanied by moral commitment to virtues like honesty, selflessness, responsibility and thrift—virtues no government program can instill, no matter how aggressive or well-funded.

For example, if programs like Kristof’s successfully limit drug use among pregnant women or cause more parents to read to their kids, has it helped to end poverty? Not exactly. While staying sober and investing in children are prerequisites for a prosperous society, using laws to force these outcomes does not address the true problem—the fact that people need government to help them do these things in the first place.

In that light, Kristof should have included more church attendance, more love for one another and a higher sense of obligation to family and community among his things “we need” to end travesties like little Johnny’s. This is the stuff of prosperity and the best deterrent to cyclical poverty.

Of course, these things are beyond the scope of government to cultivate. They are personal decisions. They are made on a strictly individual basis according to the most private of beliefs. Perhaps that’s why Kristof (and, too often, the rest of us) are so slow to point them out as the formula for poverty reduction. Preaching ancient maxims and chastising irresponsibility isn’t exactly what our friends, both poor and rich, want to hear, nor is a personal commitment to teaching moral truth as easy as voting for yet another government program.

But until moral reform becomes foremost in our attempts—both individual and collective—to eradicate poverty, problems like Johnny Weethee’s will remain prevalent in our society. Social programs like Kristof’s will come and go, chipping away at the edges of the problem and doing nothing to address its cause. The efforts of well-meaning activists and investments into seemingly good programs will go to waste.

At the end of his column, Kristof writes, “Let’s broaden the conversation about opportunity, to build not just safety nets for those who stumble but also to help all American kids achieve lift-off.”

Sounds nice, but safety nets aren’t for lifting off. They are for catching falls. Lift-off requires a firmer foundation—one that can withstand the ebbs and flows of recession, unemployment and other extraneous dampers on economic success. That firm foundation is a moral culture.

So let’s broaden the conversation about opportunity to build not just safety nets, but also a moral foundation upon which all Americans can achieve lift-off.