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Helping the Poor

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 03, 2001 by

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In her April 12, 2001, column in The Washington Post, ominously entitled "Think of the Children," Mary McGrory concludes that the government should help out more.

She relates the story Elizabeth "Cookie" Jones of Washington, a young single mother of three who was profiled by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Katherine Boo in the April 9 New Yorker magazine. Ms. Jones works two jobs—full time as a cop on the night shift and part time as a security guard—and survives on two hours of sleep a night. Sadly, her three children go neglected.

Describing the situation that Ms. Jones and her three children face, Ms. McGrory remarks that "the institutions in Cookie's life are spectacularly unresponsive." Yes, but it is a tale of public failure at every turn.

Ms. Jones's preteen daughter, Drenika, first attended the local public school, known to be a source of high illiteracy, but then was sent to one "said" to be better. Ms. Jones's youngest son, Dernard, is enrolled in a charter school—from which, following a disappointing visit to his class where she observed  the students and the teacher all sitting in stupified silence, Ms. Jones departed, remarking angrily, "It's like people think that in this part of town we settle for anything."

Her other son, Wayne, doesn't speak and has been called retarded and diagnosed dyslexic—although a private school in Maryland has determined he is neither. Ms. McGrory remarks, "The history is that public schools in the nation's capital are so bad that people just throw up their hands."

After saying this, and after cataloging the failure of the various public institutions and of  the local schools, both public and charter, Ms. McGrory asks: "What could the government do to help the Elizabeth Joneses in our midst?" She then proposes a few solutions: It could provide better schools and after-school programs, and it could arrange part-time work and subsidize Ms. Jones's living so she could spend more time with her children.

Apparently to justify her proposals, Ms. McGrory recites the claims of Peter Edelman, a one-time aide to Robert F. Kennedy and a "distinguished public policymaker" who resigned from HHS in protest of President Clinton's "hard-nosed welfare reform bill." In his book, Searching for America's Heart, Mr. Edelman wrote that the elimination of cash assistance after five years and the treatment of legal immigrants was "harsh, and, well, un-American."

It is unfortunate that Ms. McGrory admires bureaucratic institutions as she does. It is not in the nature of bureaucratic management to serve the needs of consumers because it is isolated from the consequences of its failures. Indeed, failure is seen as a reason for more funding, more power, more control, and more taxation. Public schools are bad precisely because they are public schools and have no incentive to respond to consumer demands.

And those who suffer from this neglect are the consumers of education—the students and their parents. Witness, as one example, young Wayne's misdiagnosis as dyslexic. Surely it is no coincidence that the modern increase in diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and other therapeutic maladies correlates with the continuing decline and bureaucratization of education.

Yet Ms. McGrory cites an example that refutes her proposals. A mail carrier named Andre Ford took the initiative and formed and coached a football team for eight- to fourteen-year-olds. Mr. Ford is an example of entrepreneurship—something Ms. McGrory completely missed. He saw an opportunity and has moved to supply the demand. He is described as providing the children what they crave, "acknowledgment of their existence" and "a chance to be something."

As much as anyone's heart goes out to Elizabeth Jones, her situation in no way entitles her to the property of others. Moreover, bureaucratic, centralized control over her life will bring her neither happiness nor security. It is unfortunate that, after recounting this litany of government failure, Ms. McGrory's solution is to propose further government meddling and control, and to ignore the entrepreneurial spirit of finding solutions.

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Adam Young is studying computer science in Ontario, Canada (email: adamyoung@hotmail.com). See his archive.