Stacy McCain is directing people to read a long piece in NRO – a genuine example of investigative journalism, no less! I’m going to be highlighting different aspects of the issues than Stacy does, so I’d recommend reading both.
First off, he addresses “brain drain” – many of the high-achieving people in the “rural underclass” leave the area for places with more opportunity. Stacy points out that this sort of thing has always happened – but that when families were having an average of five or six kids, the population that stayed behind stayed large and dynamic. Hmmm. Maybe. But this is another example of something that caught my interest in one of Vox Day’s threads – “brain drain” effects that cause the communities left behind to suffer. I don’t think that tying people down to one place is a viable solution – but I wonder what makes the difference between a community that gets abandoned by its best and brightest, and communities that end up sending their best and brightest off to get more education and then having those individuals return and set up shop back home. Isn’t that what many Indian students do? Come to the US for education, then return to India to use that education? Perhaps that effect is too macro – there’s certainly a lot of poverty in India, and those students are probably returning to the more technologically advanced and prosperous areas of India than going out into little villages and such.
Here’s the part I want to excerpt:
“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”
And pair that with this comment, by cloud_buster:
The answer is, “just leave them alone.” Stop trying to fix them. Stop the welfare. Stop the “programs.” Left to their own devices, they’ll “fix” themselves or they won’t. It’s not an outsider’s problem. Everything outsiders have done only makes it worse.
Kevin Williamson makes the point himself, that those who are doing well in the area are doing quite well – he briefly mentions a new golf club at one point. I’d have appreciated a little more info about the other end of the economic scale in the area. Many commenters are upset that he focuses so tightly on the poor in that area, giving an incomplete picture of what’s happening. I think that’s a fair criticism. In any discussion of this community’s problems, I think there needs to be a complete picture: what are the successful people like? Where does their income come from? If it’s government work, then yeah, I think that needs to be said.
And let’s be clear: if a great many people are taking their food stamp benefit, and laundering it for 50% in real money, then the welfare benefits are just adding fuel to a problematic fire. People who are essentially discarding half the value of food stamps and turning the rest into cash that can be used to buy non-food items are not about to starve if welfare gets cut off. And the kids who are going hungry, are going hungry because their parents are spending the money on things other than food. More welfare money is not going to solve that problem.
And I don’t think that “teaching” the people left behind there “how to live” is going to do any good. Those people are living in a way that they’ve chosen. Somebody else is going to come in and “teach” them? That’s basically just saying “these people are poor and ignorant and the only problem they have is that they don’t know how much better they could have it!” Uh, NO. They know that they could have it “better” – people do leave the area looking for opportunity, after all – and these are the ones that chose to stay in a place that’s sub-par as far as economic opportunity. Education is gonna fix their problems? Dude, are you a flaming liberal? When has that ever worked? The ones who “get it” and go for education leave.
This, I think, is an issue that does have something to do with Stacy’s point about birth rates. These areas are not reproducing themselves. Towns and counties that are not reproducing themselves will die. The community dying process generally tends to self-accelerate as those who can get out and find healthy communities to join do so. What’s left are those whose attachment to the land is stronger than the draw of other opportunities elsewhere. One commenter compared it to the gold rush ghost towns: the natural end of many of these places is abandonment. Welfare is artificially slowing the abandonment-process. And giving welfare to these people makes the rest of the country take an interest in meddling to “solve” their problems so that they won’t need welfare anymore.
Take the welfare away, though, and nature will “solve” their problems. The ones who want to remain will find ways to survive – and their lifestyles won’t be anybody’s business but their own. Those who can’t find ways to survive there will find ways to leave and go to other places that have more opportunity. Giving them welfare just makes it easier for people stay put in a place with not a lot of prospects.
Commenter JonahsSoftwareDevelopmentGuy says: I’ve been chaperoning high school students on summer works camps in Appalachia for 25 years . We go to the southwestern section of WV. Many of the problems in the region are cultural. There’s a “good enough” attitude to life, i.e. “I’ve got enough $ to stay in this little house and chew tobacco on the front porch so why bother getting an education or working too hard.”
The attitude of many people is that this attitude of “good enough” is a problem. It is not a problem. The only reason it ever becomes a problem is that some do-gooder in government decides to hand out welfare money to everyone below a certain income, and suddenly the “good enough” folks get paid on the taxpayer dime to be “good enough.” Ixnay on that. Don’t try to change the human. Change the incentive. If “good enough is” for those folks, just leave them to it.
Also from the comments: an illustration of why welfare incentives matter. Parents with learning-disabled children get more money. Therefore the parents will ensure that their children don’t get good grades in school, so that the family will receive more money. Not only is this hurting the children academically (I doubt many of them are doing the hard work of studying and learning the material and then faking wrong answers on tests!) but it teaches them to manipulate the welfare system. It’s quite rational, actually. But profoundly damaging.
The problem with welfare, even the kind that’s just “we don’t want people to die of starvation or exposure” – and I certainly don’t want people to die of starvation or exposure, myself, they both suck – is that even that basic help is interfering with the natural purpose of life. It’s one thing to have a “good enough” mentality when you’re living in a shack you built yourself and finding ways to heat your shack in the winter with wood you chopped yourself and hunt your own food and so on. Grinding poverty? Sure. Also known as “the default state of nature.” And if people are starving, it’s only natural for first worlders to have compassion and want to ensure that nobody has to starve. And, of course, the easiest way to do that is to… throw money at the problem. That actually might help for some people, but it seems to have engendered its own, very severe problems. It’s not doing much for the kids whose parents are spending laundered EBT cash on stuff other than food.
Meanwhile you get the very reasonable response of anger in people whose money is being taken through taxes and then redistributed to people who don’t work to improve their standards of living – except by gaming the welfare system. With a cut off the top to “privileged” bureaucrat workers who fill out and file the paperwork, of course. (I’m not really buying the whole “If work was here, we’d do it” thing from the article. So if “work” was handed out like welfare benefits, dropped into your lap, you’d take it? Color me Not Impressed.)
It reminds me, a bit, of the people on the animal hoarding show. They’re making the choice to feed the animals before they feed themselves; they allow the animals to destroy their homes; they lose their jobs because no one can stand the odor of cat piss that they carry around everywhere they go. They need help. Often their friends and family members, though, are simply giving money or food – which only perpetuates the problem. And sometimes the intervention, backed by a major media corporation… fails. And the epilogue is a sad line that goes something like “Six months later, Jane Doe still lives in her home with forty cats.” The compassionate urge is to DO SOMETHING!! – not just for the human, but for the animals as well – but without the ability to take someone that damaged and strip them of significant civil rights so that their families can be given guardianship of the hoarder, there’s nothing productive that can be done. Social opprobrium doesn’t work. These people are genuinely mentally ill – they cannot see the fact that having a huge breeding colony of cats (or dogs) steadily destroying their home is worse than giving up the animals, even if most of them will be put down, and going to live with relatives who will have one or two cats. They’ve consistently put their feelings for the animals above the animals’ well being, and in so doing, have created the very conditions (huge groups of barely-tame, health-compromised “pets”) that ensure the most suffering. And when the intervention of family and therapists fail… there’s nothing left to do, unless you’re willing to institutionalize. Which also sucks.
Eventually, you have to be able to tell people, “This is what you chose. If I give you the money you’re asking for, you’ll just continue in your path and end up coming back for more. I’m sorry. I won’t give you money. Come ask me for help when you’re ready to change your path.” One particular commenter claims that it’s better for society to be handing out this welfare money, because otherwise the people getting it would be turning to crime to get by. Somehow, I don’t really buy that reasoning. It might be true that welfare benefits are cheaper than prison sentences; but then, I think welfare is damaging and that prison is damaging and that both need to be changed.
So what’s to be done for the nation’s poorest county? Well, there’s a lot of economic headwinds that could address specific industries’ shutting down, on the “federal” level. On another level – as long as people aren’t starving to death or dying of hypothermia in the winter… nothing. Or, rather – the rest of the country should do nothing. The people in surrounding counties can do as they please, to deliver help; there are certainly more affluent areas nearby. If someone were to relocate there to offer assistance, perhaps some of that “education on how to live” bit, well and good. If you want to help, go live there. Otherwise it would be better to leave them be. Rather libertarian of me, I know – but people who make “bad” choices should not be showered with largess from far-away bleeding hearts. It just encourages the bad choices; and I’d rather have people making “honest” bad choices than doing so because making bad choices nets them extra money from the government.