On Our Responsibility to the Poor

I.  A Preamble

As a little boy in Colombia, I remember walking through Bogota’s busiest streets firmly holding my mother’s hand. I was afraid, terrified, by the amount of beggars lining outside Unicentro, one of the largest commercial malls in the country. As I grew up, my fear evolved to shame, then grew into frustration. The more I grew up and noticed the disparity between those who begged for enough money for food and those who went inside the fancy mall out of pure recreation, the more indignant I became. “If only these people gave a fraction of their wealth to the poor, we could have a much healthier, safer, and simply nicer world,” I would think to myself.

During my time here at Brown, I learned thoroughly of colonial Latin American repression, U.S. military and economic imperialism, as well as how race, class, and sex perpetuate the hierarchies of oppression, which still shape society today. Augusto Pinochet, Fulgencio Batista, Rafael Trujillo, Castillo Armas, Plan Colombia, Leopoldo Galtieri, Francisco Franco, United Fruit Company, Maquiladoras, Operation Wetback, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Operation Condor, the International Monetary Fund, the School of the Americas — these were part of my everyday vocabulary. From my studies, I came to the conclusion that distributive justice to the generations of indigenous and black people is not only ethical but necessary to ensure the kind of equality necessary for a just society.

I viewed the state as the Robin Hood that could bring about that justice, and I felt confident in the ability of a democratic society to fulfill a vision whereby a person’s voice and rights would matter more than the amount of money in their wallets. Had you met me as a freshman, I would have proudly claimed myself a socialist and as a champion of those people unheard due to the power structures currently in place. I vividly remember laughing alongside my new Brown peers on how ridiculous any free market-based arguments were and how ignorant, stupid, and frankly imbecile their ideas would be. With the election of Obama in 2008, I felt that the country was finally reaching a state where everyone would be guaranteed the rights that they deserved — to healthcare, to pensions, to good working hours, to education, and to safety.

But here I am four years later, a committed libertarian. I don’t think it is intellectually honest that I “reached the age of reason” or I “finally made up my mind.” This was part of a slow but ultimately radical shift in the way I viewed my world. I still share similar ends behind progressive political ideology, and my vehement defense of capitalism is not out of an indifference to the indigent. Rather, it is a conscious realization that a society that employs the voluntary interdependent forces of the market, as opposed to the involuntary coercive forces of the state, will succeed best at those concerns driving the left.

II.   My case

Why are incarceration, poverty, recidivism, homelessness, domestic violence, drug use, gang membership, dropout, debt, and malnutrition rates so high among low-income blacks, southeast Asians, and Latinos?

The factors are complex, but the story is simple. From the beginning of such a child’s life, he or she will be zoned into a poor-performing school district because their family cannot afford the property taxes for a great school district.

  • Unlike the college process, in which schools compete for student services, our government grants monopoly power to school districts, having federal education dollars follow the schools rather than the students. This lack of competition incentivizes wider disparities in education disparities.

As the kids grow up, they consume goods with an overwhelming amount of high-fructose corn syrup, drastically increasing the likelihood of diabetes, heart attack, and cancer.

  • This too is a result of a continual history of government subsidies towards corn industries. By taking money from taxpayers to fund large-scale agri-business, the government destroyed local, organic, alternative products.

Upon (hopefully) graduating high school, these students underperform relative to their wealthier teenage peers in the job market due to the previous lack of high-quality public schooling. Combined with a minimum wage, these two policies effectively price low-income families out of employment opportunities.

  • If a worker can only produce $4 of value per hour and the minimum wage is $8.50, employers cannot legally hire another worker unless they plan to be charitable. This incentivizes mechanization of menial jobs and removes experience-building opportunities from the resumes of these job applicants.

A fraction of these people, trying to find ways to pay for family sustenance, are invited by gangs to work selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other hard drugs. In the current criminal justice system, an overwhelming amount of people are incarcerated and bound into a cycle of recidivism for committing the crime of possessing a drug.

  • The illegality associated with hard drugs makes the drug industry lucrative, violent, and dangerous for young teens to participate in. If marijuana is illegal, a drug seller receives a premium for selling these goods illegally. Without legal means to compete, gangs control market share via black market means (i.e. turf wars).

Those who do go to college at a four-year institution are not benefited by affirmative action policies, since they typically hire on basis of race and not of class.

  • Furthermore, the tax dollars (of both poor and rich families) that go to public education at collegiate levels overwhelmingly favors upper middle- income families, simply because a higher fraction of the rich go to public colleges than the poor.

Those who do find an employer willing to hire them start paying taxes towards Medicare, Social Security, and public education, most of which benefit higher-income families.

  • Since low-income families pay Social Security and Medicare taxes earlier, live shorter lives on average, and work for a longer period of time, the returns received from these programs is actually worse for these communities.

Those that go on to try to pursue blue-collar and white-collar jobs have tremendously hard times finding an employer willing to hire them.

  • Given the competitiveness of applicant pools and the incredible expenses that come along with the hiring process, employers are hesitant to hire these kinds of employees, due to the amount of safety, immigration, licensing, certification, and health insurance requirements mandated by the state.

III.    Our Responsibility to the Poor

Our responsibility to the poor is not to coerce others into charity via the state. It is to provide a system whereby the poor have the greatest opportunity to better their condition. It is not more government but less government that will enable these people to self-actualize.

Our responsibility to the poor is to find ways to create as much value as possible. Our goals as entrepreneurs and participants in a large-scale global economy is to find ways to create value to consumers — in ways that reduce the cost of living for the poor.

Lastly, our responsibility to the poor is to hold our individual selves accountable to the betterment of those around us. The merchant Prophet Muhammad demanded that alms be given not through a process by which we coerce wealth from group A to give to group B but by which we individually provide financial assistance to the poor, needy, and homeless.



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