Durham News: Opinion

Wilson: Bell’s anti-poverty agenda short on specifics

Mayor Bill Bell dedicated his 2014 state of the city report to that most intractable of economic problems, poverty. He said we need to do something about it.

Yes, we do, but the how and what of the effort remain as elusive today as they were at the dawn of civilization. Durham’s government-defined poverty rate is 19.4 percent, higher than the state and national averages.

In monetary terms, a person earning $11,670 or less a year meets the official definition of poverty.

When Bell said we need to do something about poverty in Durham, he failed to follow with specifics. That isn’t surprising, because most remedies for poverty are like Jell-O – they slip through your fingers as easily as they roll off the tongue.

On the whole, however, you might think of poverty as a two-headed monster: absolute poverty and relative poverty.

No one seems to know how many people in Durham live in absolute poverty, which defines itself as destitution. That’s the kind of poverty, poverty in the Biblical sense, that most of us think of – when we think of it at all.

The poverty we see in East Durham is not absolute poverty. It is relative poverty, and in places such as the Central African Republic and Bangladesh, a poor person living in poverty here would be envied. Thus the relativity of it – poverty is what you, Mayor Bell or a Washington bureaucrat says it is.

Of course, for the poor the definition of poverty comes down to the basics: bringing in enough money to pay for food, shelter and other necessities. Thus many people still picture poverty here in stereotypical terms, a single black mother with two or more kids clinging to her side, living on welfare and in extreme cases, the kindness of strangers.

The extent that the city and its numerous anti-poverty nonprofits can affect the poverty matrix here has always been questionable. The matrix reproduces itself with such vexing efficiency that neither government nor anyone else has ever wrestled it to the ground.

The gold standard of anti-poverty efforts was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative in 1965, remnants of which still exist as government-funded job training programs, Medicaid, food stamps and the like. It’s hard for those who went all-in for the promise of the the Great Society to admit that most aspects of the effort failed.

Remember the community-action agencies that spent Washington’s dollars on sweeping poverty out with the dust bunnies? They accomplished little beyond providing jobs for their administrators.

If conventional anti-poverty programs worked, we wouldn’t have a surfeit of poverty in East Durham. What we do have 50 years after the onset of a national effort to wean the poor from government assistance is ... even more government assistance.

In other words, more dependency on government for the essentials of life. That has become the norm for relative poverty, and fully half of the country’s 316 million people now receive government aid in one form or another.

We know, however, that relative poverty can be short-circuited by three simple measures: finish high school, get married and don’t have more children than you can support.

I wish Mayor Bell had zeroed in on those three objectives. To be fair, something is generally better than nothing -- but as his address illustrated, not by much.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.