Where is the Empathy?

Treat the poor and sick like dirt

In this tweet, James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, said the words in the image above. This image has been circulating around the internet ever since. Martin’s tweet was posted in the context of Congress considering reductions in the future growth of welfare programs. It is fair to consider the tweet to be urging people to oppose such reductions.

I do understand why a Jesuit Priest and his acolytes would say something like this. Wanting to help the poor and sick is highly commendable. On the other hand, whether people can achieve salvation (or deserve the esteem or self-esteem that comes from doing good deeds) by urging others to delegate their personal obligations to help the poor and sick to Caesar is doubtful. (BTW: I believe that encouraging Caesar to take money from others with threats of force does not fulfill one’s personal obligation to personally help the poor and that believing one has done good by doing that is undeserved self-flattery, does not earn salvation, and is damnable; however, that is not the point of this post.)

Before discussing why turning aid to the poor and sick over to Caesar is a failed idea, let’s survey a few other things to criticize about James Martin’s tweet:

  1. If there are any politicians who “treat the poor and the sick like dirt,” there are so few of them they have no noticeable impact on policy—such immoral people are too few to be worth mentioning.
  1. Presuming or projecting (which the tweet does) immoral motives on the part of people whose motives you do not understand is probably a sin. At a minimum, it is uncharitable. (That a Catholic priest would so judge so many people is remarkable, if not damnable!)
  1. Martin appears to be assuming something like the New York Times’s description of Trump’s proposed budget cuts. The Times described them thus: “would cut deeply into programs for the poor,” “deep cuts in entitlement programs,” “slashing more than $800 billion from Medicaid,” “slicing,” “steep reductions,” etc.[i]

Let’s first realize that under the Senate’s proposed “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” spending on Medicaid will increase every year.[ii]

The only thing being cut is how rapidly Medicaid’s authorized budget increases. Medicaid is a program to provide medical aid to those who cannot afford medical assistance.[iii] Medicaid does not include the “unreimbursed” (free) healthcare that the government forces hospitals to give to the poor who show up in the emergency rooms across the country.[iv] Nor do these “cuts” affect any of the medical assistance provided to the poor by private charities. When the “cuts” are compared to all of the healthcare benefits bestowed on the poor through multiple programs, $800 billion is a small number. To characterize the proposal as a “cut,” “slash,” “slice,” or “reduction” is hyperbolic sophistry and mean-spirited. It is designed to prejudice rather than inform.[v]

Medicaid is just one of numerous programs and tax provisions that transfer wealth from the nation’s relatively productive people to its relatively unproductive people. All told, the U.S. government spends $1 trillion per year to fight poverty. A touted reason for Medicaid is that it enables people who otherwise could not be productive due to medical conditions to become productive. So if we are spending over $1 trillion to reduce poverty in America, why doesn’t the incidence of poverty go down? Stated differently, if the government were an effective way to reduce poverty, wouldn’t there be fewer people needing Medicaid assistance over time? As it turns out, all of the projections of Medicaid spending, including the Senate’s plan, are projections of the government’s failure to solve a problem it is trying to fix—and has been aggressively trying to fix for over fifty years. Since LBJ declared the War on Poverty in 1964, the government has spent over $22 trillion[vi] to win that war. Over that time, the number of people “in poverty” has increased from 25 million to 43 million.[vii] What Ronald Reagan said in the 1980s, “We have fought the war on poverty and poverty won,” is even truer today.

During those 50+ years, there were politicians who believed that spending less (say $21 trillion instead of $22 trillion) on this failed effort would free up resources for more advantageous opportunities. Similarly, today’s politicians who were slandered by Martin’s tweet are proposing to spend $4.2 billion instead of $5 billion per year over the next ten years on the poor people who are sick. Saying that politicians who are proposing that the government spend $4.2 billion per year on Medicaid are treating “the poor and sick like dirt” is loathsome.

  1. By how much should Medicaid increase per year? For some people (probably including Martin) the answer is always “more,” no matter how much is being or is proposed to be spent. Can enough be spent on the poor to eliminate the poor? Of course not.[viii] So why does Martin think he knows how much should be spent? He surely has no clue, and he is surely even more clueless about how the poor could be better helped by spending on things other than healthcare.
  1. Politicians of Martin’s liking told Americans that Obamacare would “bring down the cost of healthcare.” If they really believed the cost of healthcare would fall with the passage of Obamacare, why would the government project increases in the cost of Medicare over time? Note that the projected increases brought about by Obamacare are what Congress is proposing to trim. (Never mind, those promises were just sounds caused by a politician’s lips moving.)
  2. Let’s assume, as Martin suggests, that the nation would be treating “the poor and sick like dirt” if it does not take even bigger gobs of money from some people under threat of force and give that extra money to sick, poor people. Throughout human history, there has been no nation on earth that has taken as much money from its citizens for the purpose of treating the needs and wants of it poor and sick as does the U.S. Has every other nation that ever existed therefore necessarily treated its poor and sick people like less than dirt? By some heavenly standard, the answer is surely “yes.” In the real, human world where spending resources on one positive thing means having fewer resources to spend on other positive things, the issues involved in how much to spend on the poor and sick are so complicated that Martin’s comment should be viewed as no more than slander by an insufficiently informed person. (See Author’s Note at the bottom of this page.)

More important than the shortcomings of Martin’s comment and his beliefs, however, is that what the government is doing in its efforts to help the poor actually hurts poor people, especially black poor people,[ix] more than it helps them.[x] In short, if people pay attention to Martin’s slander, Martin would have helped the poor much more had he remained silent.[xi] Let’s sort this out.


Who are the poor in America today? For the most part, they are the descendants of the poor of the past. This is in no small part attributable to what is known in economics as the “cycle of poverty[xii] or the “poverty trap.” While the causes of the cycle of poverty are many and varied, much of it can be boiled down to this: The attitudes, ethics, perspectives, beliefs, and customs (“mores”) of parents tend to be passed on to their children. (Note that I did not include intelligence in this list. With the exception of people with exceedingly low intelligence—much lower than is typical of the vast majority of people who live in poverty—“poor people” have sufficient capacities to flourish in America if the mores to do so are instilled in them.) Some mores produce a higher percentage of thriving people than others. The people with the least effective mores tend to live in communities with poor schools, relatively few positive role models, and other handicaps. Consequently, even in the absence of government involvement, families who find themselves in communities with unproductive or counterproductive mores tend to be stuck there for multiple generations.

Most of what the government does for the purpose of helping the poor creates disincentives and obstacles to escaping the shackles of stultifying communities. As was predicted[xiii] by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, assistant to the Labor Secretaries of JFK and LBJ, having more single-parent households in poor communities leads to poor outcomes for most children in those households. Larry Elder convincingly presented this case in his lecture Black Fathers Matter.[xiv] Not only did the War on Poverty policies enable women to marry the state and render men superfluous to the family unit, it actually made men liabilities to the financial wellbeing of families. Due, not doubt to time limitations, Elder’s video covered only some of the negative impacts that the War on Poverty has inflicted on poor families. I’ll touch on just a few of the many more.

While there are many grand exceptions to the general state of affairs (more on that below), systematically rendering men as liabilities to poor families does great damage to the sense of self-worth of poor boys and men. Feelings of worthlessness are not conducive to human flourishing. Worse, they often induce such men to seek respect in antisocial dimensions. This not only induces men to avoid being positive factors in their communities, it results in menaces to society roaming poor neighborhoods. Men not having a respected role in families has caused poor communities to be poorer than they would otherwise have been.

Again, there are exceptions,[xv] but the children from fatherless families are, on average, less parented than the children of dual-parent families. For example, disciplining children wears parents down. Consequently, two parents can provide more parenting than one. On average, about half of the children of single-parent families are boys. When those boys find themselves in communities in which men are superfluous to families and aren’t around to educate, discipline, and demonstrate how to be men and where many of the men that they see around them are up to no good, their chances of adopting the mores that would enable them to flourish are agonizingly low.

As is typical when a community considers itself to be oppressed, its members tend to circle the wagons to defend themselves against negative judgments of their community by others. Sadly, all too often poor black communities react by ascribing positive qualities to mores that are believed by those who are supposedly oppressing the community to be negative. President Obama identified two of ways in which poor black communities do this as “’acting white’ and its ugly cousin, acting ‘not black enough. . .’[xvi] Eschewing education and work and judging others by the color of their skin is not conducive to flourishing.

What is critical to understand is that the counterproductive pathologies are not the fault of the people living them out—and neither are they to blame. They are the victims of the system imposed on them by well-meaning but myopic people such as Priest Martin. (BTW: For a great discussion of the pathology Martin exhibits with his comment, see “The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.”)

Thankfully, there are many exceptions to this general rule. For the most part, however, the people who break out of the shackles with which impoverished communities bind their members are only those who are exceptionally talented or smart. Ordinary people, much less those with below average skills or intelligence, have little chance to escape.

That those pathologies are the product of government programs and not of the people suffering under those programs is made clear in Larry Elder’s video linked above. I discussed the same issue in “Equal Rights or Equal Outcomes.” In short, it is factually and morally wrong to assume that poor people, especially black poor people, are not capable of thriving. As Thomas Sowell has documented so extensively,[xvii], “The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs. It dropped another 17 percentage points during the decade of the 1960s and one percentage point during the 1970s. . .” It appears obvious that the 17 percent drop in the poverty rate among blacks in the 1960s would have been much smaller had LBJ’s “The Great Society Programs” not come online so late in that decade. The thing to note, however, is that the Great Society Programs put a stop to the progress of poor blacks for at least 10 years and have snared far too many black people into multi-generational poverty—something out of which they were rapidly climbing prior to the government trying to help. Though the rates of escaping poverty have improved since their nadir, those rates pale in comparison to the progress that was made before the government started trying to help.

Now, let’s proceed to the nub of the matter.

When Martin says “the poor,” to whom is he referring? Is it to the people alive today who are poor, or is he talking about the multigenerational descendants of those people? The number of descendants of today’s poor will vastly outnumber the people who are currently poor. For example, as mentioned above, in the late ‘60s, when the effects of the War on Poverty began, there were about 25 million Americans in poverty. There are almost double that number in poverty today. The reality is that paying people (with money or other considerations) to be poor causes more poor people to adopt counterproductive mores. Not only does paying people induce them to adopt lifestyles that conform to the statutory definition of “poor,” the statute defining the term pays more to those poor people who have more children. (The fact that it makes no economic sense to have more children is lost on people who have no economic sense.) Those children are typically raised in communities that produce more poor people.

Even worse, “the system” created by the statutes makes escaping the communities with anti-flourishing lifestyles almost impossible. The loss of benefits that accompanies a welfare recipient getting a job is equivalent to an income tax. That tax rate is the highest income tax rate on the books. Because the government pays people to be poor and punishes them with excessive “income taxes” if they try to escape, the longer the government keeps it up, the more people will live anti-flourishing lifestyles. That is a major factor in the number of people living in poverty keeping pace with the huge rise in the U.S. population since 1965. Demanding that poor people be paid even more to remain poor, as Martin does, will create more poor people over time. Why would a good-hearted person do such a thing?

It is not that these facts are unknowable or unpredictable. Ronald Reagan had it right when he said, “We’re in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives.” That danger has now come to fruition. Is Martin intentionally ignoring this ugly reality?

People like Martin actually celebrate how many people are being served by welfare programs—as if trapping more people in poverty is a good thing. They also celebrate the diversity that poor people bring to the larger community and respect the anti-thriving mores of the poor communities as being equally valid as the mores of more prosperous communities—as if diversity is always a good thing. (It would be wonderful if humans could have good with no evil, but the existence of “good” is made tangible by its comparison to “evil.” This should not mean, however, that we should celebrate evil for the sake of diversity.)

Many politicians who have been slandered by Martin object to how, in practice over the long run, the War on Poverty: 1) hurts poor people, 2) creates more poor people, and 3) is, in effect, a war on the better economy (and the higher standards of living that would have accompanied a more robust economy) that could have been. Unlike Martin, they see that a growing economy improves the standard of living of poor people more than it improves the standard of living of the non-poor. As I said in “Wealth,” “With all its faults and narrowness of focus, the wealth brought about by capitalism has lessened human suffering, solved problems, allowed humans to flourish, and enabled billions or more people to partake in the joys of life.” See also “Income Inequality Is More Than It’s Cracked Up to Be.”

America’s current welfare system is a monster that gobbles up lives and traps them there with lower odds of escaping than Jonah’s. Feeding that monster, as Martin and his acolytes do, will enable the monster to gobble up even more lives. Martin should be politicking to reform those programs rather than asking for them to get more money, which would only cause the population of the poor to grow.


[i]Trump’s Budget Cuts Deeply Into Medicaid and Anti-Poverty Efforts

[ii]Data Underlying Figures – Congressional Budget Office

[iii]Guess What? There Are No Cuts in Medicaid.” This article also makes the case that “Piles of studies have shown that people on Medicaid have health outcomes that are no better, and often worse, than those with no insurance at all.” BTW: I am aware that Politifact and others have claimed that the Administration’s claim that “there are no cuts to Medicaid” is “mostly false.” The basis of Politifact’s claim is that Obamacare had authorized higher rates of increases to Medicaid spending than the Senate’s proposed Obamacare replacement would authorize. In other words, Politifact admits that Medicaid spending will increase (not be cut) every year under the proposed law, but insists that Medicaid is being “cut.”

[iv]The Impact of Unreimbursed Care on the Emergency Physician.” This benefit to the poor and the sick is, in effect, a special tax imposed exclusively on hospitals and emergency room physicians, nurses, and staff. “According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 55% of an emergency physician’s time is spent providing uncompensated care.” (I wonder if Martin took this into account before he uttered his slander.)

[v] See “The Truth Is Hard For the New York Times.”

[vi] http://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/the-war-poverty-after-50-years

[vii] Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate

[viii]You will always have the poor among you. . . .”

[ix]Moynihan Black Poverty Report Revisited 50 Years Later

[x] This is a recurring theme of this blog because there are so many facets of the harm inflicted by the government and it is so consequential. A few examples of previous posts that touch on aspects of this point include:

[xi] Martin and much of the public are seemingly blind to the reality that the government hurts the poor more than it helps them. That people are blind to this reality is an indictment of our educational systems, both secular and parochial.

[xii] The “set of factors or events by which poverty, once started, is likely to continue unless there is outside intervention.”

[xiii]The Moynihan Report (1965)”

[xiv] See also “Urban America’s Underclass: More Money Won’t Solve the Problems

[xv] I am well aware of and believe the many studies that have found instances of great parenting from single mothers and other non-traditional families. While there is no doubt such can be the case, I believe that the combinations of education, intelligence, and the mores of successful non-traditional families are on a higher plain than is typical of families in poor communities.

[xvi]Obama goes there on ‘acting white’

[xvii]Race and Culture: A World View” and “Wealth, Poverty and Politics

Author’s Note: In the original version of this post I used the term, “simpleton” instead of “insufficiently informed person.” I had mistakenly used the term “simpleton” to refer to someone who viewed issues too simplistically.  I have since learned that “simpleton” means “an ignorant, foolish, or silly person.” I do not consider Mr. Martin to be foolish or silly. Only the definition, “ignorant,” is close to what I meant—someone with too little information to make a well informed decision about the subject at hand. Inasmuch as there are definitions of the word “simpleton” that are commentary on the intelligence of a person (something about which I did not intend to comment), I have edited this post to replace the term that is more accurate. I apologize to Mr. Martin to have used term which could be interpreted as a personal attack. I believe Mr. Martin to be mistaken, but good and well-intended person.]

3 thoughts on “Where is the Empathy?”

  1. Perhaps the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are right — the system is rigged against the poor.


    1. Sadly, the system is rigged against the poor in many respects. It also favors the rich who are politically connected to the group in power (which changes from time to time). “Regulatory capture,” regulated companies having too much influencing how their industry is regulated (which is often used to fend off less rich competitors) are real things.

      The problem with the Warren/Sanders approaches is that it calls for even more government control of the economy which necessarily creates even greater opportunities for government to work in the best interest of those who can best support the power, income and lifestyles of the people doing the regulating.

      The fact that trapping poor people in poverty for generations is of political advantage to one party (the party that is seen as championing the causes of the poor) is an underreported conflict of interest and scandal–aided and abetted by people like James Martin.

      Another sad thing is that too many people believe that having a fair tax system (e.g., one that permits oil companies to deduct ordinary and necessary business expenses) would be a government handout to business or “the rich.”

      None of this is an argument to “help” the poor more. It is an argument to quit helping the rich. Let the free market do more to work its wonders in creating jobs, innovation and prosperity with as little regulations as is feasible.


  2. Really really well put. You skillfully pull threads in from a variety of angles. You seemed unusually harsh on Martin at the onset, but I think your itemization helped to adequately flesh out your irritation with him.

    Liked by 1 person

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