In his continuing effort to pit races and classes against each other, Democratic presidential candidate and socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders has said that if you are white, “you don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”
He should drive some of the roads I’ve driven in West Virginia, among other places. Some of the homes of the white poor look like throwbacks from an earlier time.
Mr. Sanders attempted to “clarify” his comment (a political synonym for walking it back when it didn’t play well) during a town hall meeting Monday night in Detroit. Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked him about his remark and Mr. Sanders replied, “I know about white poverty. There is no candidate in this race who has talked more about poverty than I have.”
Therein lies the problem. The left talks a lot about poverty, but when it comes to programs and ideas to help people climb out of poverty, their only solution is to spend more money. If money alone were enough to extricate people from poverty and help them sustain themselves with a job and a strong family, then the more than $1 trillion spent on anti-poverty programs since the Great Society was launched by President Johnson in 1964 would have reduced the number of poor people in America. And yet the poverty rate changes very little. A rational person might conclude that spending more money on programs that have failed to achieve their stated goals is not the right answer.
In April and May 1964, President Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson, toured the Appalachian states. After their visit he vowed to wipe out poverty. He didn’t, and his successors haven’t, either.
What do I, a now “prosperous” white guy, know about poverty?
In 1965, I was a private first class in the U.S. Army, working at Armed Forces Radio in New York City for the astronomical wage of $99 a month. All of us enlisted men had second jobs to make ends meet. Mine was as an engineer at WOR-TV. I had no car, the subway was 10 cents (soon to jump to 15 cents, producing cries from the left that it would harm the poor). I had no savings and as one payday approached I had only a dime in my pocket for a one-way trip to work. Had the paycheck not arrived, I had no idea how to get home to our little apartment in Elmhurst, Queens. Hitchhiking in New York City was not an option.
What I did have was incentive. I did not accept my poverty status as the final verdict on a young life. To paraphrase the song, if I couldn’t make it in America, I couldn’t make it anywhere. And so I kept at it until my Army discharge and then I moved back to Washington where I finished college, worked at a civilian media job and persisted until breaks came.
While poverty does not have simple solutions, there are solutions. They begin with relaying stories to the poor about people who used to be in their situation but liberated themselves from a life of want and need by making the right life choices. Inspiration and hope do not come from government. They come from within. They also come from churches, more of which can and should “adopt” a poor family and help them move out of poverty.
“You gotta have hope, mustn’t sit around and mope,” says the song from the musical “Damn Yankees.” Where does anyone hear that in our blame, envy and entitlement political discourse?
Where have you gone, Horatio Alger? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).