Poverty's Paradoxes and Intractable Dilemmas

by S. Leon Felkins

February 7, 2001

Last revised 10/7/09

The hottest political news at the end of January, 2001, were the stories about President Bush establishing, by Executive Order, the "Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives", and his push for allowing religious groups to receive public funds for social service efforts. Bush and his new Attorney General, Ashcroft, have been strong proponents for federal funding of "faith-based" charity organizations (in fact, Ashcroft, when he was a senator, was the prime mover of the "Charitable Choice" initiative in the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996").

A study of the history of welfare programs reveals that the belief that, somehow, religious groups do much better in helping the poor is quite unfounded and, like every other idea that has been tried on this problem, will likely make it worse. The purpose of this essay is to examine the fundamental problems of poverty and welfare, to identify some of the intractable aspects of the problems, and make clear why these problems should not be left to the whims of politicians.

President Johnson's
Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty
March 16, 1964

Some extracts:

... I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory.
Our fight against poverty will be an investment in the most valuable of our resources--the skills and strength of our people.
And in the future, as in the past, this investment will return its cost many fold to our entire economy.
... I do not intend that the war against poverty become a series of uncoordinated and unrelated efforts--that it perish for lack of leadership and direction.
Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty.
The new program I propose is within our means. Its cost of 970 million dollars is 1 percent of our national budget--and every dollar I am requesting for this program is already included in the budget I sent to Congress in January.
And this program is much more than a beginning.
Rather it is a commitment. It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind's enemies. (Emphasis added)

While the history of welfare is replete with failure, the results of the last 40 years are the most disastrous. President Johnson, in his Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty, March 16, 1964, seemed determined to win (see box at right). Whether this was naivete or duplicity, I will leave to the reader to decide. In any case the result is a disastrous worsening of the poverty situation after spending over $8 trillion that was going to end it.

Let us look at the results of this grand experiment. (The primary source of this summary is from renowned welfare scholar, Robert Rector, Senior Policy Analyst, The Heritage Foundation, "WELFARE: Broadening the Reform #1" and "WELFARE: Broadening the Reform #2"):

The problem of how to humanely meet the needs of the members of society that cannot adequately take care of themselves is a very difficult one. This essay will attempt to bring out into the open the many difficult and often paradoxical issues associated with poverty and state or community provided welfare.

Any time an individual reacts with a group, paradoxes and dilemmas are immediately apparent. These diabolical difficulties are well known and have been discussed extensively in books and the academic journals. My web site, "A Rational Life" is devoted to this subject and provides extensive references to other resources for further study.

It is not surprising then that when an individual cannot make ends meet and must depend on the help of the group the individual is associated with, all the "individual/group" problems of normal interaction are in effect plus considerable more.

The fact that these problems are rarely discussed in a rational way by the public, the media, or the politicians is really no great surprise and absolutely no indication that the problems are not serious. There are various reasons why you are not exposed to an honest discussion, mostly political, but one serious reason is simply that the problems have difficult solutions or none at all. When such is the case, many people do not like to discuss it. The possibility that something might not have a solution is a hard pill to swallow. Think of it as something like getting a "16" in a game of Blackjack -- whatever you do, the odds are you're going to lose.


The poor and unfortunate have always been with us. Up until recent times, the immediate family and community took care of those that were not doing well. In general, they recognized that they had two types of unfortunate -- those in which a true misfortune had happened and those that were lazy. They treated the two differently -- unlike most of the modern programs.

For various reasons -- too many to go into in this article -- the trend of government involvement has been away from the local, community, family responsibility toward the distant central authority. Progressively over time, government control has moved from city, to county, to state, and now to federal control.

While this trend may have solved some of the abuses that existed under local control, it has made worse many other problems; which is what much of this article is about.

The Poverty Predicament

Now let us examine some of the extreme difficulties associated with the poverty problem, its many paradoxes and dilemmas. While, in general, I do not claim to have solutions to these problems, I think their examination has considerable value in that it helps to understand why the government solutions have essentially a 100% failure rate - not all that surprising when we realize that all the attempted solutions are essentially politically motivated.

One note of caution here: one should not assume that just because the government has failed in solving poverty that private industry could succeed (given A or B, proving A wrong does not prove B right). For "welfare" is basically a "public good" and it is an economic fact that the free market generally fails in the provision of "public goods". For more, see "The Universal Welfare State as a Social Dilemma" by B Rothstein.

Some Background on Vagueness and Social Dilemmas

Before we get into the specifics of poverty and welfare, it would be best to have a general understanding of a couple of the underlying philosophical issues that make the problem nearly intractable. You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about these issues at my web site, "A Rational Life".

  • Vagueness

    The definition of poverty is vague. By that I mean, there is no clear demarcation between the identification of a pauper and a non-pauper. The words "pauper, "poor", "poverty", and even "rich", fall into the category occupied by such words as "tall", "fat", "smart", "old", "bald", and "be with you in a moment".

    They are vague. Having no precise definition, the government arbitrarily defines one -- which I call a "break-point". This results in the strange anomaly of a government social worker telling an applicant in a tragic situation (sleeping in a cardboard shack, broken automobile, children with learning problems, etc.) but just happens to be making one penny over the official poverty level for his size family, that no, he is not eligible for financial support.

    Most government laws and regulations are vague in some way, including the Constitution (what is a speedy trial, anyway?). This fact, I believe, is one of the most serious flaws in our system of government and is a great danger to our society. Too bad it is given little notice.

  • Social dilemmas

    Social dilemmas are situations where an individuals best interests differ from what might be the best interest of the group she belongs to. If the individual elects to pursue her best interest, she will be better off, unless everyone (or most everyone) does the same thing, in which case they will all be worse off. This type of action is sometimes called freeriding. An example would be the electrical power situation in California. A person might use more electricity (not conserve) because it would improve her situation. However if all did that, then all might suffer greatly.

    Standardized examples of social dilemmas are: "Prisoner's Dilemma", "Voting paradox", Volunteer's Paradox, and the "Tragedy of the Commons".

First off, the government has to deal with the vagueness problem. While you and I can just say, "this person is in dire straits and I think I will help her", that option is not available to the government. Due to the intrigues of politics, the laziness of the bureaucrats, and assorted other reasons, functions that are inherently vague and should be so treated, are converted to absolute functions by the imposition of an arbitrary break point. In the case of poverty, that breakpoint is the "poverty level".

If you would like to learn more about the major issues of poverty -- politics, human nature, availability of jobs, etc. see Lawrence Mead's excellent book, The New Politics of Poverty, 1992, Basic Books.

Conclusion: Politics vs. Science

There are some things that politicians can handle without doing major damage to the citizens. Roads, dams, space exploration, and setting flush limits on commodes come to mind. Sure, there is a lot of waste and vote buying pork, but such programs rarely endanger the masses.

But there are other societal issues that are just too complicated and dangerous to be left to the politicians and their selfish manipulations. Welfare is probably number one in that category. Allowing the politicians to determine welfare policies has been disastrous. The politicians don't just waste money, they destroy lives. Addiction to welfare, living in crime and squalor, fatherless homes for children, class hatred, are all just part of the price that millions pay as a result of politicians promoting their own selfish agendas.

While the solution to the poverty predicament is obviously very complex, there is little doubt that we could do much better. Social scientists have built up a great knowledge on the science of animal and human behavior. In fact, the government has spent many millions of dollars supporting thousands of studies in this area. Yet, when it comes to deciding what should be done, or at least tried, politics always determines the answer; without, of course, ever looking at the studies that they paid for. Since millions of votes are at stake that can be impacted by various welfare policies, the politician will do whatever she thinks will maximize her vote count and her control -- whatever the cost to humanity.

How often it is difficult to be wisely charitable - to do good without multiplying the sources of evil. To give alms is nothing unless you give thought also. It is written, not, "blessed is he that feedeth the poor," but "blessed is he that considereth the poor." A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money. -- John Ruskin


Copyright 2001 by Leon Felkins. All rights reserved.

Back to the "Politics" Page.
Back to the Rational Life page.