Stop Blaming America’s Poor for Their Poverty
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Many conservatives in the U.S. believe that poverty is mainly a result of bad personal decisions. African-Americans are especially likely to be blamed for their own poverty -- an attitude that some political scientists call racial resentment. Stereotypes of so-called welfare queens have been a staple of Republican messaging for decades. But conservatives also attribute similar failings to poor white people. In a memorable 2016 article, National Review writer Kevin Williamson blamed divorce and substance abuse for the despair of the white working class:
[The white working class] failed themselves…Take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy [and] you will come to an awful realization…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
According to this perspective, if people were just to work hard, avoid drugs, alcohol and violence, and stop having children out of wedlock, poverty would be rare.
But there is at least one rich country where people follow all of these prescriptions -- where they work hard, avoid risky, self-destructive behavior and make wise life choices. That country is Japan. And it still has plenty of poverty.
Violence is exceedingly rare in Japan. The murder rate is so small as to barely register:
Japan's crime rate was always low, but it has fallen even further in recent years, leaving some police departments with little to do.
Japan also has very little illegal drug use. After World War II there was a problem with methamphetamine addiction (which did lead to some violent crime), but this has largely disappeared. Despite the country’s draconian drug laws, narcotics prosecutions are only about 13,000 a year, with about 3,000 being for marijuana. Very small percentages of Japanese people report ever having used drugs.
And the country has very little single parenthood. Although the rate has risen by about 50% since the country’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, there are still only about 712,000 single mothers, or less than 2% of all households. This is compares to roughly 8.5 million in the U.S., which has about 2.7 times Japan’s population.
Finally, Japanese people almost all work. The working-age employment rate, at more than 77%, is higher than the 71% rate in the U.S.
Given all of this good behavior, conservatives might expect that Japan’s poverty rate would be very low. But the opposite is true; Japan has a relatively high number of poor people for an advanced country. Defined by the percentage of the population earning less than half of the median national income, Japan’s poverty rate is more than 15% -- a little lower than the U.S., but considerably higher than countries such as Germany, Canada or Australia:
Japanese poverty is a quiet affair. There are almost no slums or shantytowns. The streets are generally clean and well-kept. Homeless people sleep out of sight. So-called evaporated people leave their homes and families and eke out meager, anonymous existences. Single people live in tiny bare apartments little larger than a closet. Elderly people who never recovered from the economic bust of the 1990s suffer in the shadows. Many shop at 100-yen stores (similar to dollar stores) just to survive.
Children are going hungry too. Almost 14% of kids, or some 3.5 million in all, are estimated to live in poverty -- and that’s already down from a peak of more than 16% in 2012. To combat the problem, local governments around the country are opening thousands of cafeterias where children can eat for free.
In terms of overall social spending to support the poor, however, Japan falls near the middle of the pack:
And much of this is due to its national health-insurance system; in terms of the welfare state, Japan lags well behind Europe.
So Japanese people are doing everything right -- eschewing violence, avoiding drugs, working hard and not having kids out of wedlock. They are following the conservative prescription, as well as or better than any other developed country in the world. And yet still, many of them are poor. This suggests that there is something very wrong with the conservative theory of poverty.
Although some individuals suffer economic hardship due to their own poor choices -- and violence, drugs and family breakdown undoubtedly make life worse for poor people in any country -- the main causes of poverty are more related to the economy’s structure. Too many people fall through the cracks in the capitalist system because of unemployment, sickness, injury or other forms of bad luck. And the market, on its own, simply doesn’t create enough well-paying jobs for everyone to be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle.
So the solution for the U.S.’s relatively high poverty rate will probably rely little on personal responsibility and moral rectitude. Instead, the U.S. should look to European countries, or to Australia and Canada, for ideas on how to reduce poverty. There’s just no substitute for a strong social safety net.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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