The Census Bureau recently released the latest poverty statistics, pegging the poverty rate for 2013 at 14.5 percent of the U.S. population. That was a slight decrease from 2012’s 15 percent. With statistics like these, pundits often springboard into the reoccurring income inequality conversation. When President Obama called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” he clearly sent a message clearly to all job creators and entrepreneurs: the American dream no longer means the freedom to exceed and excel based on your skills and aspirations; instead it means a level of subsistence the ranking governmental authority nearest you considers acceptable.
Campaign promises aside, such statements ignore that America’s promise means equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. By choosing to focus on short-term lifestyles rather than long-term opportunity, lawmakers penalize those who have the greatest potential to create pathways from poverty for others. Poverty-killers’ secret weapon? Jobs.
As an entrepreneur engaged in business education and mentoring, I can report that America’s job creators are struggling in this current political season, as they’ve become a favorite target of those running for office. Case in point: Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address said, “We know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete—and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise—unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.”
Income disparities result from complex life equations where each individual leverages his or her own skills, abilities, education, and experience in the free market to differentiate himself or herself from the rest. To expect income inquality is to assume all factors should be the same.
Ironically, so called “income inequality” has expanded since 2008 as government regulations, Obamacare, et al, have increased. You don’t have to be an economist to know this jobless, stagnant economy now shrunken by the greatest percentage in five years cannot provoke opportunity. The greatest burden facing our economy today is the malaise felt by job creators, who hear that their accomplishments are tainted and their costs should skyrocket.
Being Poor Is Not About Money
Further, who defines what “pay off” means and whom does an “opportunity agenda” target for relief or payment?
As someone who worked his way from food stamps to full employment, I understand what it is to struggle toward hope. But having now traveled the world, working in some of its poorest regions, I’ve seen how the poor in the United States have so much more than many of their counterparts around the world. Some people here earn more than others, but certainly the poor in the United States are the richest poor people in the world.
It also might help to understand what the poor consider the worst thing about being so. According to the World Bank, researchers found that the aspect of poverty that most concerned the poor was “fear, shame, [and] helplessness” Oddly, they did not mention income inequality or lack of material things. They wanted to be empowered and prospered by their own initiative.
Opportunity provides self-sufficiency, along with respect and pride. This, in turn, removes fear, shame, and helplessness while creating income growth and more wealth for everyone. Inversely, focusing on income inequality means government must redistribute wealth after people create it, thus creating dependency, which creates ultimately what the poor consider poverty: a perpetual state of helplessness. This also leads to resentment against those able to succeed without the condescending paternalism of government.
Focusing on income inequality does not help the poor long-term. Instead, it helps political entities that provide virtual patronage and distracts from bureacurats’ poor handling of economic forces that require real skill to address. It’s not hard to write a check with someone else’s money. It is harder to empower growth with reasonable policies that do not punish success.
President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” is entering its fiftieth year. With more than $16 trillion spent on anti-poverty programs since, the United States has gone from 19 percent poverty to 15 percent, by its own assessment. Most would call this a failure. Yet, many political leaders campaign for more of the same.
America’s current configuration of a “safety net” often ensnares and entangles people who are down on their luck, creating lifelong dependency. We need an “opportunity ladder” that helps people who have fallen climb. This will come from deliberately equipping people with vital skills, freeing job creators, and allowing people in the free market to have success based on their abilities. I’ve found the hope of a future drives more people than the guarantee of a handout.
Fundamentally, focusing on income inequality over a strategic vision for upward mobility takes our policies in the wrong direction while whipping up resentment among our neighbors. We need to create opportunity and celebrate achievement to inspire the next generation. At the end of the day, economies thrive on hope, not jealousy.
Robert Dickie III is president of Crown Financial Ministries, a nonprofit educational organization engaged in career and business planning, and author of the upcoming book, “The Leap—Building a Full-time Life in a Part-time World.”