Since the 1960s the federal government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into alleviating black poverty. Yet, black politicians talk as if blacks are tottering on the economic edge and could easily slip into Third World levels of misery: starvation, deadly illness, families reduced to living in homeless shelters and relying on soup kitchens.
Are black leaders crying wolf? Statistics on poverty are notoriously tricky (especially when calculating government benefits and “off-the-books” income), but it is increasingly clear that this tale of woe lacks credibility. Judging by what I can see, the opposite may be true: many blacks are living conspicuously well and could easily survive on far less government generosity.
To start with statistics, Ken McIntyre at National Review Online recently noted that while one in seven Americans is officially certified as poor by the Census Bureau, most live in decent, often air-conditioned housing with modern appliances. Many have washing machines, cable TV (often with two color TVs and a DVD player), Internet access, up-to-date electronic gaming systems such as Xboxes and PlayStations, and can easily pay for food and ordinary medical care. A similar Census Bureau study reports that the poor often have a car (a third have two or more cars), and that half own a computer and enjoy more living space than the average non-poor European.
The popular image of hungry children is absolutely wrong–only 1.3 percent of all American children suffered any hunger in all of 2009. This affluence may even be under-stated if we subtract the poor who are genuinely incapable of self-sufficiency: the mentally disturbed, drug addicts, destitute old people, and others who legitimately need state-funded care.
But perhaps more relevant than these statistics is what can be witnessed personally. To be sure, my observations are local and may reflect idiosyncratic circumstances, but reality seems a far cry from the sky-is-falling rhetoric offered up by Jesse Jackson and company.
My own views reflect seven years of living in New York City, riding the subway almost daily, and watching knots of blacks in public places. I strongly suspect that what I see is routine elsewhere.
The giveaway traits of lower-class blacks are flashy cheap jewelry, sloppy dress, baseball caps at rakish angles, and–particularly among women, regardless of age–rampant obesity. We are not talking “a bit chubby,” but hugeness that I would estimate afflicts a third or more of all black women under the age of 60. Many are constantly eating from small packages of snack food.
Almost every black–save the elderly–is mesmerized by some hand-held electronic device. State-of-the-art cell phones, iPods and Blackberry-type devices are de rigueur and constant use suggests expensive monthly plans. Indeed, the latest research confirms my view that blacks are not denying themselves. Among mobile phone users, 33 percent of blacks own a smart phone, while only 27 percent of whites do.
Many younger black women sport professionally executed tattoos, elaborate braided hair-styles, and virtually every woman seems to have fancy professional manicures and even pedicures. They have a penchant for fake designer pocketbooks while young men favor the latest athletic shoes. Aside from the occasional beggar–who is almost always obese–I have never encountered a single black person who resembled the stereotypical 19th-century urban poor, let alone what is common in the Third World.
What I see is consumerism über alles. A visitor to the local Best Buy might think he was living in Detroit, not Manhattan, given the clientele’s racial composition. Black women who are no doubt classified as “poor” abound in clothing/accessory stores, and nearly all pay with credit cards. I have sometimes seen smartly dressed blacks at supermarkets paying with food stamps, and they were hardly buying basics. The black appetite for playing the lottery is well known. These observations fit well with research that shows that blacks substantially outspend whites on visible “prestige” consumer goods such as clothing, cars and jewelry.
I would estimate that giving up a premium cell phone and cable subscription, eating and shopping less, making do with last season’s electronic gadgets, skipping regular manicures and cancelling credit cards (and paying off balances) would easily reduce monthly expenditures by several hundred dollars. Put another way, a more ascetic life would be the equivalent of President Obama giving every black person a monthly bonus of $300–perhaps more if you calculate credit-card interest. Needless to say, this do-it-yourself “stimulus package” of self-restraint is not on the public agenda.
In-your-face excess invites resentment, particularly if we include many non-visible but well-known benefits such as gift mortgages and free daycare. It is not hard to imagine how whites react when they see black leaders on television demanding yet more federal spending to rescue blacks from disaster. No doubt many whites also understand why blacks stay at the bottom while one immigrant group after another zooms past them: Unbridled consumerism–not white racism, discrimination and the other alleged culprits–undermines both investment in education and acquisition of capital necessary to get ahead.
The bottom line is a growing standoff between blacks who crave yet more entitlement spending and non-blacks who are tired of paying for this wastefulness. More is involved than just money; rampant consumerism at public expense is deeply felt and correctly seen as morally unfair, a modern incarnation of Aesop’s tale of the ant and the grasshopper. Though nobody will say it, this outrage probably helps fuel the Tea Party.
Like all wars, “The War on Black Poverty” is a long, expensive campaign that requires sustained public support. That support may be rapidly eroding. Why engage in budget-busting quests so millions can have spiffy cell phones and diabetes-inducing obesity?
Mr. Kay is a retired academic who is now free to speak his mind.