The latest cause to attract the enthusiasm of the 2007 legislature - after heating fuel conservation, universal preschooling, and gay marriage - is the prevalence of poverty, especially that afflicting children. The legislature charged a new Vermont Child Poverty Council with finding ways to reduce the Vermont child poverty rate from 15% to half of that ten years from now.
The Council's hearings around the state are predictably attracting numerous advocates for the poor. They bring with them all sorts of stories about deepening hardship and privation, and most if not all of them support bold government action to lift people out of poverty.
"Poverty" requires measurement. The "Federal Poverty Level" (now $20,615 for a family of four) is universally viewed as hopelessly inadequate. It undercounts income, omits earned income tax credits, and ignores all non-cash benefits for the poor, such as subsidized housing, food stamps, and Medicaid.
In any case, the Census Bureau, still using the FPL, found that 12.3% of all people were poor in 2006, down from 12.6% the year before. Various government surveys reveal some interesting facts about what living in poverty is like today.
Forty three percent of all poor households own their own homes, on average a three-bedroom house with one and a half baths.
Two thirds of poor households live in dwellings with more than two rooms per person. Indeed, the average poor American has more living space than the average resident of Paris, London, Vienna, or Athens.
Eighty percent of poor households enjoy air conditioning. Eighty nine percent have a microwave oven. Ninety seven percent own a color TV, and 62 percent enjoy cable or satellite reception.
Seventy three percent of poor households own a car or truck; 31% own more than one.
Ranked by income, the lowest one-fifth of households makes per capita expenditures equal in real dollars to those of the median income households of 1970. Living in poverty is a lot better than it used to be, even forty years ago.
There are two main reasons why 17.4% of all children in America live in poverty. The first one is that their parents typically work for pay only sixteen hours a week. If the adults in a poor household worked a total of 2000 hours a year, as most full time workers do, over 70% of poor children wouldn't be poor any more.
Two thirds of poor children live in single parent homes. If poor mothers married and formed families with the fathers of their children, almost three quarters of the children would immediately be out of poverty.
Beyond a disinclination to work and marry, many able-bodied adults (and thus their children) live in poverty not because of genetic shortcomings, accidents, serious childhood abuse, or plain bad luck, but because they have made poor decisions. Some examples: dropping out of high school, choosing low ethical standards, neglecting diet and health, using drugs and booze, and managing money poorly, notably by spending too much on tobacco, booze, drugs, entertainment, prepared food, and interest on debt.
This observation will instantly send the politically correct into shock. These folks tend to view people who live in poverty as victims of unseen forces that exploit them against their knowledge and will. They have trouble facing up to the unpleasant fact that for reasonably healthy American-born or legal immigrant couples who completed high school, stay married, conscientiously work, stay out of trouble with the law, and steer clear of booze and drugs, the poverty rate is in the low single digits.
Of course, no one is likely to make this point to the new Vermont Child Poverty Council. Its members will listen sympathetically for months to the urgent voices of the advocates for the poor. Eventually the Council will produce a report focusing on the "root causes of poverty." And surprise! The Council will find that a civilized society like ours must identify and overcome the root causes of poverty through increased regulation and more government spending.
Low paying jobs? Mandate that employers pay a "living wage". High cost of housing? Subsidize the cost, and impose more rules on landlords. Poor health? Raise new taxes to pay for a universal coverage health care system. Day care costs? Make free preschools universal. High heating costs? Subsidize fuel bills for more households. Inadequate transportation? Expand public transit with nominal fares.
It will not likely occur to the Council members that perhaps some tough love on the subject of character, self-improvement, parental responsibility, wise shopping, clean living, and the benefits of work might do the poor a better service. After all, it has worked over the years for millions of Vermonters.