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The Fifth Isn't the Third

Wiley Hilburn, Jr., is the head of the Journalism Department at Louisiana Tech University and has taught there for many years, credentialing a number of journalists some of whom now populate the largest newspaper in northwest Louisiana, The Times of Shreveport, Bossier City and the Ark-La-Tex (more colloquially known as “The Times”). He writes a weekly column for The Times, in which this gem, about the political success of U.S. Fifth Congressional District (northeast and part of central Louisiana) Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander, appears, here describing many of the parishes in the district:

The Ouachita River parishes are desperately poor, beyond third-world standards. Ingrained, generational poverty has bred a Faulkneresque grind of illiteracy, violence, corruption, drugs and even arson.

Each sentence is breathtakingly ignorant. Regarding the first, I do not know this man but I can tell you now from this sentence that there is no way he has spent any meaningful time in the Third World outside of hotels, restaurants, and other attractions that cater to foreigners, if he’s ever been outside of a developed country before. If he had spent any time interacting among ordinary people in their domestic environments going about their business in a Third World country (LDC or “less developed country” is what us comparative politics teachers call them), he would never have made such a contrafactual statement. Take it from somebody who has accumulated weeks of time trooping around the big cities and the back roads of 15 LDCs on four continents, 99.44% of their populations live in worse conditions than the typical person in poverty in the U.S., Fifth District or elsewhere in America. It would be these peoples’ dream to have pure, running water in their houses, 2,200 calories a day, or access to our health care system for just one day – things virtually every American or LA-5 resident has.

But don’t take just my anecdotal impressions as evidence. Check out some U.S. Census data concerning the Fifth District. Let’s concentrate on just a few indicators there, and compare them to just a few countries (this data courtesy of the World Bank):

% living on under$2/day0.037.414.37.426.310.3
% in secondary ed97.123.031.2NA56.1NA
% w/telephones94.320.224.735.540.162.7

Actually, that last category overstates the LDCs relative to the Fifth District because the U.S. figures include only land lines, while the World Bank data includes mobile as well (which inflates the figures by at least 50 percent). And the five states I picked have two things in common, (1) I’ve been to them and (2) they are all among the more “advanced” LDCs economically. Consider places like Mali, the Central Africa Republic, even oil rich Nigeria (all of whom at least 60 percent of the citizenry live on less than $2 per day) and you’ll see that Hilburn’s assertion that conditions in the parishes along the Ouachita are “beyond third-world [sic] standards” is beyond stupid.

In the next sentence, Hilburn manages to show he comes up short on theory as well as on facts, repeating the old canard that poverty, not individual human agency, is the source of “illiteracy, violence, corruption, drugs, and even arson.” Maybe he hasn’t heard that the U.S. has sunk around $7 trillion into anti-poverty spending the past four decades, and our poverty rate hasn’t budged. Maybe he doesn’t understand that if you don’t subsidize poverty through generous welfare programs, curtailed by a Republican Congress pointing an electoral gun at Democrat Pres. Bill Clinton in 1996, more people get off welfare rolls and on to employment rolls, the surest way to reduce poverty.

“Poverty,” when defined as “lack of financial resources,” does not cause the social pathologies he describes. It is a certain set of attitudes which cause poverty that also cause these deviant behaviors; both are associated with each other by their relationship to poverty but are not related to each other (see here for a summary of the academician most associated with this formulation). In short, poverty is not something primarily caused by lack of monetary resources; it comes from having a set of attitudes that are suboptimal to the earning of money – attitudes which also lead to “illiteracy, violence,” etc.

Until enough policymakers with the attitudes demonstrated by Hilburn in his column accept this, their prescriptions will do nothing to solve poverty in the Fifth District or anywhere else. And it certainly doesn’t help when journalists who think as does Hilburn on this subject perpetuate their myths.

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