Two articles today engage with dire American poverty: David Simon's essay in The Guardian about “Two Americas,” exemplified by the Baltimore in which he lives and the Baltimore he dramatized in “The Wire,” and Andrea Elliot’s NYT article “Invisible Child” about a homeless 11 year old and her family in Brooklyn. I recommend both; but I want to append that diagnosing the issue is far different from treating it.
Simon’s central thesis is that capitalism only works when a) there is a social compact that we are obligated to help those less well off and b) when “[l]abour doesn't get to win all its arguments, [and] capital doesn't get to. But it's in the tension, it's in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.” He cites Marx in a general way to support the thesis but mostly just looks around America and notes that we’ve failed the “maybe 10 or 15% of my country [that] is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy.” I agree completely -but then he pivots to the suggestion that we need nationalized insurance. Here we part ways.
SImon is responding most directly to a caricatured version of conservative thinking that we have no obligation to help “them,” the people outside of our immediate worlds, defined however. (Of course when Romney literally bemoans that some Americans “believe that they are entitled...to food,” perhaps it’s not such a caricature. To food? Really!?). That’s nice. I too would like to convince the libertarian body politic that if we let 15% of America starve, it will have bad consequences for everyone...but this is totally orthogonal to the more sophisticated conservative version of the argument. They aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t help poor Americans, but that a huge, byzantine welfare state creates perverse incentives, income cliffs at which it makes little sense to work, and, as Charles Murray puts it, if payments are linked to having certain problems, you’re going to incentivize having or showing those problems. Similarly, with health insurance, conservatives like Ross Douthat argue “that comprehensive health insurance is, at its heart, a deeply wasteful use of resources,” given the weak links between having insurance and health outcome, and that Americans are “much more likely to overconsume health care than to underconsume it.”
The point here is that it’s utterly possible to look at the same evidence Simon looks at, acknowledge that it’s a huge problem, and not at all think that Marx is the light to look to, and to in fact think that leftist solutions have heretofore caused more harm than good.
Elliot’s piece -- which I cannot recommend enough -- is much less political, except for a brief reference to Reagan-era cuts to homelessness benefits and to how the “traditional anchors” of the poor and middle class, “affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.” I strongly disagree with this. I live in New York now. Various aspects of the city’s gentrification trouble me, and my place in it is a source of discomfort. But I for one am highly skeptical that you can tell a compelling story starting with preferable zoning laws for luxury high-rises and ending with an 11 year old who is homeless with two unemployed, formerly drug-addicted parents. (Perhaps at the margin, this story could work -- taxation on projects of certain sizes could be diverted to making shelters safe and clean -- but that’s amelioration, not central cause and effect). If you can tell such a story, by all means, please do. But we cannot assume it.
The story that makes more sense to me is that this problem -- “Two Americas”, one of them adrift, or Coming Apart, or whatever you want to call it -- is completely not specific to place but happening everywhere. The Times provides a great illustration of this last year with its phenomenal series on “The Lady Jaguars,” a rural Tennessee basketball team of troubled high school-age girls. The takeaway is that none of us have any idea what to do about this “second America,” where George Zimmermans see Trayvon Martins and immediately peg them as criminals, where just half of all births are out of wedlock , where lifespans of certain segments of the population have actually declined in the past 20 years, where the prison population seems increasingly unable to escape disciplining institutions.
And neither conservatives nor liberals have any idea what actually works and can be scaled up to an entire country. All we have are speculation, faith in our ideologies, and potential small-scale fixes at the margin. The issue is not that we haven’t yet implemented the right solution. it’s that we have no idea what the right solution is.