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Poverty Will Always Be With Us Until We Do Something About It

By Matthew Yglesias on July 20, 2009 at 4:01 pm

"Poverty Will Always Be With Us Until We Do Something About It"

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Charles Krauthammer scoffs at the idea of spending money on ensuring that poor people have health care with the observation that “Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us” so we might as well spend our money on space exploration. Ezra Klein says “That’s true. But the degree to which they’re with us is directly dependent on where we spend those billions.”

I think even that concedes too much. I wish this chart actually started at zero, but the point should be clear either way. It shows the poverty rate in the United States:

poverty_rate1

What happened? Well, public policy happened. In the 1960s, federal domestic programs got more ambitious, especially with regard to senior citizens. And the poverty rate went down, with the declines concentrated among the seniors who were the main targets of the spending. The extent of poverty is very much subject to our control. Disease, presumably, really will always be with us. But still, polio isn’t with us anymore. Nor is smallpox.

Albert Hirschman wrote a book called The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Of the three, I think “futility” is the most pernicious and in some ways the easiest to knock down. It sounds very wise to observe that problems are unsolvable. But even though change is hard, it’s very much possible.

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