Here I will explore the truth of these words of Jesus, according to Matthew, in a context very different from the standard context. The context explored here is relevant to what the country should do about healthcare.
Unless otherwise stated, by “the poor,” I am referring to those living in the United States who are generally perceived to be poor. As I discussed in my blog post “Wealth,” “[Poor Americans] are rich compared to 99% of all humans who have ever lived, i.e., all Americans living today, including ‘the poor,’ are in the top 1% by this standard.” I have also claimed that if “income” were equalized among all the people of the world, Americans who live under the “poverty line” would have to pay into the world’s commonwealth. Using the term “income” so loosely was fine in those contexts. In the context of this post specifically about “the poor,” I will be more precise.
Trying to define the income of the poor has proven to be remarkably complex.[i] Those efforts are interesting and have shed some light on the subject, but focusing on income obscures essential features of the wellbeing of the poor. Making matters more obscure is that poverty in the U.S. is defined by cash income, which does not include non-cash provision of governmental or private benefits (e.g., food stamps). However, even counting cash and benefits would not be an effective way to describe the differences between America’s poor and the poor in the poorest countries. Far more important than income is their relative quantity and quality of consumption, opportunities to access education, quality medical attention, a job, a climate-controlled respite, on-call emergency response teams, and quality entertainment as well as a relative lack of fear of injustice, war, pestilence, disease, and famine. Reasonably quantifying the value of any of these factors would be nearly, if not actually, impossible. On the other hand, it would be nearly, if not actually, impossible for one to conclude that America’s poor would not have to give up some of what they are able to consume in order to equalize the consumption of every human on Earth.
Nevertheless, any reasonable American would conclude that there are many Americans who can fairly be considered to be genuinely poor. Their high absolute wealth[ii] does not diminish the reality that they feel poor and that others believe them to be poor. Let’s sort out the implications of this reality in light of what the country should do with healthcare.
First, let’s explore why the reality described above exists. Humans, like so many animals, have hierarchies.[iii] For example, if a bowl of food is placed in a chicken coop, the chicken with the highest status will eat first, the next-highest-status chicken will eat second, and so on, until the lowest-status chicken has a turn (assuming any food is left). Not surprisingly, that is called a “pecking order.” Chafing at their situation, low-status chickens will often try to insert themselves higher in the pecking order. That’s when the feathers fly. Preventing the chickens from continually maiming and killing each other is one of the main reasons chickens are kept in individual cages (other reasons include control of temperature, protection from predators, and other environmental niceties).[iv]
Obviously, in all non-human species, money or other possessions have nothing to do with the status of individuals — yet status is every bit as real and consequential as it is in human hierarchies. On the other hand, money is not the whole story concerning human status either. (By “status,” I am not referring to people’s legal status,[v] and I am not implying that people of high status necessarily deserve their status[vi].) For good reasons, little respect or status is accorded to lottery winners.[vii] Much respect and status is accorded to Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King despite their meager wealth. Truman and Carter did not become president because of their wealth (they had relatively little), and Gore, Kerry, and Hillary did not become president despite their wealth. Also, a person who rises out of a government housing project by applying herself in school, getting a job, and earning an honest living that enables her to take care of herself and her family deserves enormous respect. Note also that to a large degree, people who inherit wealth but do not personally do things for the betterment of society are disregarded as “trust fund babies.” Even more disrespected are those who gain their wealth dishonestly.
How society dispenses status is far from perfectly fair or useful. It is useful to the extent that status is attributed to a person in proportion to the extent by which the value the person produces for the benefit of others exceeds the value of what the person consumes. To a large degree, this is how status is assigned. Wishing society were better at assigning status will not change anything.
In general, the higher a person’s status, the more she or he garners money and other benefits — e.g., fame, respect, adoration, invitations to grand events, and a following. In terms of how humans naturally sort things out, it is extremely consequential that women find men of equal or higher status to themselves to be more attractive than men of lower status, while men place relatively little importance on a woman’s status.[viii] Among the very many consequences of these facts is that competition for status among men is particularly fierce.[ix] (Perhaps I will write more on this subject in a future post. I mention these facts here only to highlight that status is a large non-monetary factor in human relations.)
Fortunately there are many dimensions on which humans can compete; i.e., many ways to gain status.[x] Unfortunately, when there is competition on any dimension, just as many people are below the median as are above the median. Some of the sting of this reality is mitigated by there being very many dimensions on which humans compete, and people’s tastes and value systems vary. In fact, some people could not care less about status, but not nearly as many as tell themselves and others such is the case. (Being the best at something, however, is of little help if a person is sufficiently despicable in other dimensions, but that fact is not relevant to this discussion.)
Sadly, however, some people are below the median on every dimension on which people compete to gain status, while others are above the median on many dimensions. (This is the result of a wide variety of causes, but this is a post about effects and consequences of differential status, not causes.) Good people justifiably feel sorry and empathetic for people plagued by low status. Not surprisingly, people want the government to “do something” to help those people. That impulse is good. It is bad, however, not to understand that such a task is very likely beyond the ability of government.
The truth of the above statement is obscured by our common nomenclature. People, myself included, tend to refer to low-status people as “the poor.” As mentioned above and elsewhere, it is unarguable that by historical standards, America’s “poor” are astoundingly financially wealthy and live in one of the safest and cleanest places the world has ever known. There is a dearth of historical examples of obesity being one of the major problems of a nation’s poor. You would also be hard-pressed to find an example of such a high percentage of working-age people in a relatively wealthy nation working so little or not at all.
Perhaps more important, if government payments to “the poor” were to double tomorrow, “the poor” would go from being in the top 1% of the wealthiest humans who ever lived to, say, the top 0.8%. The number of humans alive today who consume less than they do might go from two billion to three billion. The jubilation from the extra wealth, however, would last but a short period before the recipients of the extra benefits would realize that their place in the pecking order had not improved. Their status might actually drop because they would be getting more from society while their contributions to society might change little. Their consumption might be closer to the consumption of middle-income earners, but they would not be significantly closer to being able to afford any of the fancy cars and yachts they see others enjoying. The number of “poor people” on assistance would balloon because working would have less of an effect on a person’s ability to consume. Because of this, we will have even more people who are justifiably aggrieved and, perhaps, even further from an acceptable status. They will have more stuff, but good people will still feel sorry and empathetic for an even larger number of “the (richer) poor.”
Even if you do not accept the theories presented above, consider this. Over the last 50 years, $22 trillion has been spent in the “War on Poverty”[xi] and a multiplicity of programs have been tried to improve the lives (in terms of status, opportunities, health, income, and access) of “the poor.” (I am not referring here to the improvements in civil rights, which is a great but separate issue.) Yet disgruntlement by and about “the poor” in America has grown. In light of this reality, there is a strong case based on evidence that the government making the already wealthy poor even wealthier will not relieve the misery of “the poor,” much less make them happy; i.e., the government will not eliminate what we call “poverty.”
In any event, it is likely that providing more benefits (e.g., healthcare) to “the poor” will reduce happiness overall[xii] (after the short period of jubilation). It is certain that increased benefits to “the poor” will cause society to be less productive, less innovative, and less prosperous, that society will create fewer jobs as a result, and that pay will increase more slowly. Paying those costs would be much more easily justified if total happiness would increase as a consequence and we had good reason to believe it would cause the lives of “the poor” to improve. Adding a loss of total happiness to those costs makes justifying the pursuit of that course much more difficult.
[iii] I highly recommend “The Lucifer Principle” by Howard Bloom for a full and compelling discussion of this phenomenon and its implications. Jordan Peterson gets at some aspects of the phenomenon in his discussion of what he calls the “dominance hierarchy.” Here is a discussion of the male version of the hierarchy.
[iv] Speaking of no “solutions,” there are no solutions when it comes to caging or free-ranging chickens. See “Picture-perfect images of ‘free range’ hindering creation of realistic national egg standard, says producer.”
[v] Status is something that humans confer on each other. Humans should, and good Americans do, “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and no citizen should be denied “the right to vote based on that citizen’s ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’”
[vi] Even people deserving the highest respect for a particular skill, deed, or trait could be, and often are, reprehensible on balance due to other disrespectful aspects of their being.
[vii] In fact, many people view lotto to be a fool’s game and an exploitation of the poor and ignorant by the government (so what else is new?). Consequently, a person can win $390 million and still gain no respect for having done so. (The odds of making money playing lotto are far lower than playing any of the “heads, I lose; tails, they win” games at a casino.)
[viii] Jordan Peterson again. “Women Prefer Men with High Status“! Interestingly, while few women will marry a man of lower social status, social status is not much of a factor in males’ mate selection.
[ix] Warren Beatty is said to have had encounters with 13,000 women, Wilt Chamberlin claimed he had 20,000. As I was leaving the 2011 Master’s golf tournament at the end of the day, the number of beautiful women dressed to the nines standing outside the entrance (none of whom looked like hired help) was amazing.
[x] Personality, appearance, intelligence, strength, knowledge, business acumen, inventiveness, athletic ability, talent to entertain, and politics — to name just a few of the dimensions. There are multiple dimensions of competition within each of dimension of achievement, meaning one can excel in any number of sports, including ones that were made up by the person who gained status; e.g., Earthing. The Kardashians have proven that extraordinary status can be achieved on the basis of nothing in particular.
[xii] $22 trillion has been transferred from everyone in society (see my post, “Solutions”) to “the poor” since LBJ started the Great Society projects. In addition to wealth transfers, since the ’60s, civil rights have improved and many non-monetary affirmative action programs have been passed. Has anyone detected that “the poor” have become happier?