The Millions More Movement rally kicked off in Washington, D.C. Saturday morning with Congressman Mel Watts (D-N.C.) declaring that the gathering’s goal was “finding a way to eliminate poverty in the richest country in the world.”
This is a straightforward, altogether commendable objective, and the fact that Watts was followed to the podium by the usual clown circus does not diminish its seriousness. Indeed, if you set aside the brotha-ing and sistah-ing, the solidarity chanting and separatist ranting, the new-covenant-huckstering and crypto-socialist fist-pumping, and of course the Farrakhan fringe — in other words, if you set aside the next six hours of rhetoric on the Mall — you are left with Watts’s basic question: What can we do to reduce, and eventually eradicate, poverty?
On an individual level, the solution to poverty is by now well established: 1) Finish high school; 2) Don’t get married while you’re a teenager; 3) Don’t have a baby until you’re married. If you follow these three steps, the odds that you’ll wind up impoverished are less than 8%. If you don’t follow them, your odds rise to 80%.
But of course the solutions Watts and his cohorts are truly interested in are collective ones, federal policies designed to hoist impoverished people out of the miseries that beset them. The poignancy of such a demand is impossible to ignore, especially in the wake of last month’s disaster in New Orleans. The images of predominantly black victims of the Hurricane Katrina struggling to survive its aftermath tugged at our hearts, and we wanted to know why the government didn’t do more to help them.
Maybe, however, our focus shouldn’t have been on what the government didn’t do for the poor black residents of New Orleans but on what the government couldn’t do for the poor black residents of New Orleans: It couldn’t make them more disciplined, or more resourceful, or more law-abiding. Bearing in mind the three steps an individual can take to avoid poverty, it must be noted that 68% of births to black women nationwide are out-of-wedlock. In Louisiana, that number is 76%. The rate among black women in New Orleans is still higher, perhaps as high as 85%. (By comparison, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among all American women now stands at 34%.) Which means that even if New Orleans is rebuilt better than before, even if every displaced resident is returned to a spanking new home, their daily lives will still be burdened with the pathologies — street crime, substance abuse, gang violence, illiteracy, and promiscuity — associated with poverty. (Street crime, substance abuse, gang violence, illiteracy and promiscuity… sounds like a checklist of hip hop virtues, doesn’t it?) The main thing government cannot do for the poor, in other words, is this: It can’t keep them from screwing up their lives. It can’t separate them from the culture of dependency and the mindset of entitlement handed down through the Great Society programs of the 1960s — the country’s last concerted effort to reduce and eradicate poverty. (In 1965, the black illegitimacy rate was 26%.) What government can’t do for the poor black residents of New Orleans is strip them of their personal autonomy and rescue them from the poverty of their life choices.
If the government could do such a thing, if it could strip people of their personal autonomy, reducing or even eradicating poverty wouldn’t be such an intractable problem. Indeed, if the government were not circumscribed by a commitment to inalienable human rights, the most constructive social policy it could implement for African Americans specifically, and for all Americans generally, would be to clamp the surgical or pharmacological equivalent of chastity belts on boys and girls from the onset of puberty through high school graduation. After all, why should we allow kids to dig themselves a socio-economic hole from which they’ll likely never climb out?
The answer, of course, is that pesky little passage about self-evident truths and inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. The government has a definite interest in preventing kids from screwing up their lives, but it has no right to do so. That right belongs, initially, to the kids’ parents. And it belongs, finally, to the kids themselves.
The solution to poverty, therefore, doesn’t lie in a collective movement. It lies in the will and discipline of individual people who dedicate themselves to living moral lives, striving to improve their circumstances, and providing greater opportunities for their children. By that measure, the great betrayer of African Americans is not their government but their groins.
That message, of course, will never be heard from the Millions More Movement.
Mark Goldblatt (Mgold57@aol.com) is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture.