Saturday, October 21, 2023

Poverty and Blame: The Ninth Message from Fluff the Cottonwood

Hello, this is Fluff the Cottonwood Tree near Stan’s house in Tulsa. He has given me permission to post these observations on his blog. My previous message was on September 8.

The Dutch writer Rutger Bregman wrote a book called Utopia for Realists which is a best seller in English translation. Part of everyone’s vision of what a utopia would be like is that there would be no poverty or homelessness. But solving the problem/s of poverty seem hopelessly complex at least for you humans.

Bregman’s solution to poverty, however, is simple and realistic. It is simply to give everyone a guaranteed minimum income even for doing nothing. Free money for everybody, that is. It sounds too simple to be true, but something similar to this has been tried in many countries, especially in Europe, where Bregman lives. For example, in France, a country Stan knows something about. A guaranteed minimum income has not eliminated poverty, but it has greatly reduced it. France has much less poverty per capita than the United States.

The line of reasoning that makes sense to most people is that, if you guarantee a minimum income, then everyone would just lay or lie around and not work. But that is not what happened in France and other European countries. The reason is that most people do not want to just barely survive at the poverty level. They want to earn more money and are willing to work for it. There are a few people who are, however, willing to live in poverty without working.

Poverty, it seems to me (I am no expert; I am just a cottonwood tree) has three causes. First, the environment—simply not having enough money. The second is human nature. Some people are just lazy. These are often people who are mentally challenged. Third is the interaction. That is, when there is not enough money, the mentally challenged people will suffer more than the people who are capable of handling the complexities of everyday life. These mentally challenged people prefer to raid garbage cans and leave piles of garbage to mark their territories. I have seen this many times, since I live right at the ede of a ditch called Joe Creek in Tulsa. Here is one of Stan’s photos from 2018.

Giving free money to everyone seems like just a way of throwing away money. But here is why this is not true.

First. The American approach is to distinguish between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. What the United States does at all levels of government is to spend a lot of money, a lot, to hunt down the undeserving poor, such as welfare cheats. They even hire people to search Facebook to see if any welfare recipients are spending money on things that they should not. This is the approach upon which conservatives insist.

Second. If someone lies around without food or water or shelter, they might die. We will not let this happen. If a homeless person (or, as the French say, sans-abri, shelterless) is dying, we (usually the local government) sends out emergency rescue.

When you add those two things together, the costs of hunting down and penalizing the undeserving and of emergency rescue, add up to a lot more money than would be wasted by just giving everyone a minimum income. That is, the conservative approach (don’t give anyone free money) is more expensive than giving them free money.

Let me tell you a story of what I saw. A homeless man, who was obviously mentally challenged, was laying or lying down in a pile of garbage right at the base of my trunk. It was not clear whether he had passed out, suffered a stroke, or was simply sleeping. Someone must have called the emergency number, because a big fire truck came roaring and jangling out to him. He got up and started jumping and yelling and telling the emergency crew that he was just sleeping. They left, this time without sirens.

It is nearly certain that the administrative costs (keeping police and welfare records) plus the cost of those big fire engines must greatly exceed the amount of money that would be spent just giving the man a couple of thousand dollars a month.

Hunting down the undeserving poor and blaming them seems like the right thing to do. It seems unfair to give people money for doing nothing. Blaming lazy people may be the right and just thing to do, but it is more expensive than just handing out money. The right solution may be to kick lazy people off of public assistance, but the practical solution is just to give them enough money to barely survive.

A couple of days after the homeless man left his trash nest by my trunk, the city spent a few thousand more dollars to send out trucks to clean up the garbage he left behind. Three trucks and about six men. And they didn’t get all the trash. They left a lot. Your tax dollars at work!

Yours, not mine. I’m just a cottonwood tree. I make my own food from sunlight and from the nutrients that leach out from the garbage on the ground.

Thanks, Stan, for letting me post on your blog.