A View of the Poor from the Top
Rich Tucker /
The Washington Monument reopened recently, almost three years after an earthquake damaged it. (A freestanding stone structure is a poor design for handling quakes.) So once again, tourists can enjoy a sweeping view of the nation’s capital—from the top.
That’s wonderful for tourists.
Elsewhere in the capital, though, the view isn’t as clear. There’s no question that Washington’s elite experts want to help the less fortunate. But they haven’t been able to.
See also: How the War on Poverty Was Lost
Theodore Dalrymple thinks he knows why. “It often seems the goal of the intellectual elite is finding ways to ignore what is in front of their face,” he observed during last week’s Russell Kirk lecture at The Heritage Foundation. For much of history, the poor “were not people because one did not meet them, and therefore they did not exist.”
Yet the failure of their efforts to help the poor—the poverty rate in the U.S. is virtually unchanged after 50 years of Great Society programs—hasn’t slowed progressives down. Their most recent signature project, Obamacare, aims to federalize health care. It also “discourages work, penalizes marriage, places citizens at a disadvantage compared with non-citizens, and prioritizes coverage for able-bodied adults over services and supports for the disabled,” as Chris Jacobs wrote last year.
Dalrymple was a psychiatrist in the British National Health System and is now a noted social commentator. So he’s familiar with the poor and their problems. He spent years treating patients at a prison and an adjoining hospital. He blames the breakdown of marriage for many of society’s ills, especially the violence that plagues what he called “the lower reaches of society.”
He notes that poor immigrants to Britain have tended to do better than the native-born, perhaps because “there was no institutional attempt to help them. They had to make their own way.” Meanwhile, many native Britons were “liberated” from the need to work, and thereby became dependent on government subsidies. Many turned to violence and drug use.
Dalrymple points out that “the chief sufferers from crime are not people like us but the poor.” So those at the top are often unaware of the actual problems dogging those below—their policies in fact perhaps contributing to the ills they try to solve. One way to begin fixing that would be to stop trying to direct welfare policy from Washington. Instead, free up states to experiment with reforms that encourage work.
Those steps would be more effective than more edicts “from the top.”