When We Debate Poverty, What Are We Really Arguing About?

This is Part 3 in a series about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Click here for  Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5.


Normally, I don’t respond directly to comments  to my blog posts. I don’t like to argue with individual people, particularly when the arguments are based in hardened ideological stances that aren’t going to change with any one exchange.

But, thinking about a particular comment led to other thoughts that I want to get down in writing.

Scarcity and Poverty

A commenter to my last post about the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty said, “The not-so-subtle poke at the supposed capitalistic intent to develop scarcity so as to maintain low labor costs plays into the typical class-warfare and conspiracy of power thinking…” and “To take a Marxist… critique of  capitalism and propagate conspiracy theories against power-brokers will do little in effectively addressing the problem.”

I hadn’t thought that I was making a Marxist argument. In my decidedly non-Marxist Microeconomics 101 class way back when, the very first thing the professor told us was that scarcity was the defining concept of economic thought. Even underneath supply and demand, there is the condition of scarcity. I wasn’t meaning to present this scarcity as a conspiracy of elite power-brokers but more as a boundary condition that defines what is possible within our economic system. I was saying that scarcity of employment/labor is a fact of life. I wasn’t making a value judgment about the existence of scarcity. 

And the implication of this scarcity—that poverty will always be with us—is something that predates Karl Marx and Adam Smith. As some Christians like to quote, Jesus said that “you will always have the poor with you,” (paraphrase of Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8) or, if you want to go even farther back, to the Old Testament: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:11). I reference these quotes not as an appeal religious authority (I am not a religious person) but to demonstrate that the point about the persistence of poverty is neither new nor unique to Marxism.

My original post was responding to arguments that the War on Poverty was/is a failure.  I was arguing that no program or set of programs should be judged a failure for the persistence of poverty.

Moreover, it is not the same set of people who are poor today as were poor in the early 1960s. It is more racially diverse; it is less urban; it has proportionately fewer old people (one easily quantifiable success of War on Poverty programs is the dramatic decrease of poverty rates for seniors). So, despite the persistence of poverty, I argue that the War on Poverty has accomplished much. And further, if we want to build upon its successes, we need to recommit to reducing poverty (as opposed to eliminating it) and keeping our programs/initiatives attuned to the new realities of the current population of people in poverty.
The Legacy of the War on Poverty: What Are We Really Arguing About?

The War on Poverty was declared a little over 50 years ago, but we argue about it as if it was still ongoing. It still clearly pushes buttons and raises emotions. But the points I made about poverty and not stepping in the same river twice can also be applied to the War on Poverty and antipoverty programs. Around the 25th Anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, Ronald Reagan said, “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” 

Despite the Reagan's clear declaration about the cessation of hostilities against poverty, we act as if the War on Poverty has been enacted consistently and constantly over the past 50 years. However, many of the of the original War on Poverty programs are long dead or have been changed beyond recognition. Our current array of anti-poverty programs, such as they are, do not constitute the same river as the War on Poverty.  But politicians are holding hearings, advocacy groups are holding events, media outlets are doing retrospectives, etc., people on all sides of the issue are arguing as if the War on Poverty is still on-going and that we are all on different sides of the battlefield.

This is because we are not arguing about the War on Poverty, per se. We are arguing on the level of values and beliefs. The fight about the legacy of the War on Poverty is a proxy argument for a larger conflict about the role of government, about the possibility for personal and social change, about the role of race, gender, culture, immigration status, class background, sexuality, etc. in determining life outcomes, about personal and societal priorities, about opportunity, freedom, hope, fear, etc. My intent in these posts is not to “throw political barbs from philosophical stances” but to illuminate some of the underlying issues, data, tensions, myths and misperceptions that are present in public policy debates around issues of poverty. Of course I have a point of view (and I am not hiding the ball on my point of view). I believe that we all should be looking out for each other; that those of us who have the most should be looking out for those who have the least; that our government has a role (but are not the only actor) in this. But I try hard to keep the arguments civil and non-partisan in the realm of ideas/values and policy/programs, not so much about barb throwing.

A Final Note

In responding to the comment to my original post, I’ve tried to keep things big picture and not get into the weeds about smaller points within the comment. But, there is one point that I feel compelled to address:

“A major aspect of poverty in the US, particularly among the rise of Hispanics, is immigration. Few countries in the world import poverty to the extent the US does. Legal and illegal immigrants preponderantly bring their own poverty with them…they don't inherit here.  And it stresses the system's ability to effectively deal with those ever-increasing numbers.”   

The comment says that immigration is a “major aspect” of poverty and that it “stresses the system’s ability to effectively deal with those ever-increasing numbers.” This sentiment is common and there is a lot of outrage in the general public about the hordes of immigrants stressing our social support systems for people in poverty.   Immigrants (all national origins combined), however, only make up less than 16 percent of the total poverty population. Hispanic-origin immigrants make up less than 10 percent of the total poverty population. These are still significant numbers.  But they seem (to me at least) to be way out of proportion to the level of outrage.

Second, there seems to be an underlying assumption that, if there was no more immigration, the poverty population would not grow as fast as it does now.  But the difference between the poverty rate of immigrants and non-immigrants is relatively minor (again out of proportion to the prevailing perception).

In point of fact, for Hispanics/Latinos, the poverty rate between immigrants and non-immigrants is effectively the same (i.e., the margins of error overlap) with a slightly higher poverty rate for the non-immigrants. That is, even if we reduced immigration to zero, the poverty population would grow in the practically same proportion (with respect to overall population growth) as it does now. 

 Finally, the vast preponderance of the economic/empirical evidence is that immigration (both legal and illegal immigration) is a net benefit to the economy and this is true for the US as well as for other developed nations.

(Photo from the National Institute's of Health Library CC BY-NC-SA)

Josh Ishimatsu is deputy director of capacity building and research for National CAPACD.


  1. Josh,
    I hope that since we seem to be in a discussion, I can get familiar.
    Economics isn’t called the “dismal science” for no reason I suspect. You are right, scarcity is part and parcel of economic reality. Certain things are valuable simply because they are scarce and that scarcity tends to make them desirable…whether they are truly valuable or not. But the idea that a scarcity exists in all things is an overstatement. Until a Malthusian catastrophe develops due to over-population, there are some things that aren’t presently scarce…such as air, land and surprisingly at the present time, enough food to feed the world’s population. In regard to the food issue, what scarcity that does exist is distribution and economics-related, not scarcity itself. Are food producers capable and willing to provide food to the poor at a price they can afford? That’s not an easily answered question, and at present, the answer is “no.” So in one sense it is a contrived scarcity, but if the farmer is to maintain a living, can it be otherwise? I suppose it could if the communist concepts could really work, which up to now they have been abject failures that have produced worse situations than capitalistic measures.
    I am pleased you clarified your comments were intended as observational rather than judgmental. History has shown that power brokers act like power brokers, regardless of who they are…replacing one set of power brokers with another has never solved the issue of human greed and self-interest at the expense of those they can take advantage of.
    I would like to clarify my immigration comment. I understand your reaction and the assumption that I might disfavor immigration. Actually, I favor immigration, as I feel it has more positive aspects than negative. I was merely making an observation that many refuse to acknowledge…continuing poverty is the product of many aspects, including attitude, but one major aspect is the importation of poverty as opposed to self-made. Using stats of multi-generational poverty as opposed to immigrational poverty doesn’t tell very much. How long should it take for an immigrant family to rise above the poverty they came with? One generation? Two? The fact that they came here at least speaks to their belief that their chances are better here than where they came from. And, in my opinion, that positive attitude is what makes them an attribute to a society that has a tendency to fall into decadence because we are so relatively wealthy, compared to the rest of the world. I think it is important that immigrants rise above the place they found themselves when they came here. Their willingness to work, sacrifice, save and embrace education should be rewarded and challenge the rest of us who may take those qualities for granted in what is increasingly becoming what looks like a “nanny-state”…..a State that should look after us.
    I don’t see this as a war on poverty or a class-struggle or a discussion on distribution of scarce things, as if reducing material poverty consequentially produces better or happier lives. I see it as a process of educating ourselves about attitude and approach to life. I have been blessed to know people of material poverty who have great attitudes and unquenchable hopes…and they are rich in happiness and expectation. I know a lot of materially well-to-do folks whose attitudes and feelings are built on fear, anger and greed, and I assure you, they are miserable.
    Happiness is not a scarce commodity by its limited availability, Whatever scarcity of human happiness there may be is self-imposed. And for me, ultimately, the question of poverty is about finding personal fulfillment in what my life has meant to others, not what benefits I accrued to myself. And that question probably can’t be answered through the “dismal science” but more likely by the religious questions.


  2. Great article! I especially liked:

    “This is because we are not arguing about the War on Poverty, per se. We are arguing on the level of values and beliefs. The fight about the legacy of the War on Poverty is a proxy argument for a larger conflict about the role of government, about the possibility for personal and social change, about the role of race, gender, culture, immigration status, class background, sexuality, etc. in determining life outcomes, about personal and societal priorities, about opportunity, freedom, hope, fear, etc.”

    Well said!! Although that second sentence is a whopper! 🙂


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.