Here's an interesting little factoid about the legendary 1% - well, not the 1% exactly, but the top 400 income earners in a given year. Within 10 years, 98% of them won't be in the top 400.
We often speak of various percentages of income earners - the top one percent, the bottom quintile, and so on - as if these are fixed, immobile, and entrenched. I don't know about other places, but in the United States, that isn't the case, especially for those in the top income brackets.
There's also the problem of looking solely at income. For two years - 2005 and 2006 - my income was at the poverty level or less. In the second of those years, my adjusted income didn't make it to $10,000. But I was not poor. We had two late model cars, a very nice house (rented), three kids in private schools, and were making our way through the $100,000 I'd cleared when we sold a house in 2004 while I looked for another job. Others also may have decided that their assets are such they can live off those for a while, supplementing a meager income with substantial savings. For many, this is in effect what "retirement" amounts to. Low income? Sure, but not poor by a long shot.
Nor should we kid ourselves into thinking the child of somebody in the top percentage is not provided serious advantages or that the child of somebody in the bottom percentage is not with equal seriousness disadvantaged. There are realities to systemic, multigenerational poverty and wealth. It can take several generations of Kennedys to squander the wealth accumulated by old Joe. And the children of a person on welfare are far more likely than the children of one who is not to themselves, in turn, require welfare.
But it is not welfare that helps people achieve prosperity. Nor is inherited wealth proof against eventual poverty. We must begin to look at these as dynamic, and assess the impact various behaviors have on both wealth and poverty. It is a free country, and we should not tell somebody that they have to live this way rather than that way. But we can look at how we dispense our charity, whether in government or through private organizations, and dispense it in ways that encourage the kinds of behaviors that tend to move people out of poverty.
It is clear - and there is greater uniformity of opinion on this point than there is on global warming - that simply distributing government dollars via Food Stamps, housing assistance, welfare payments, and so on encourages behaviors that keep people impoverished. It is less clear how they might be restructured to change those incentives and move people towards behaviors conducive to prosperity.
But it's time to admit our present method is not working and start trying some other ideas out. Let us find ways to encourage this mobility rather than discourage it. It's one thing to be poor. It's another to have no hope of not being poor. The programs of the last 80 years (since FDR) have taken away most of the hope without really providing anything else.
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