February 04, 2005

But Isn't Poverty a Bad Thing?

WE WERE APPALLED to read a story recently in The New York Times, in which the newspaper tells us that Ireland is suffering a major case of guilt and pensiveness. Apparently, the Celtic Tiger has managed to get rather a lot of money over the years, and this is causing the usual suspects to worry. The Times writes:

But that new status is bringing with it an identity crisis, one that is forcing the country, and its government, to grapple with the flip side of wealth and the obligations that money imposes. While few people argue that Ireland was better off 20 years ago, some are beginning to point out that national wealth alone, without introspection, does not necessarily bring happiness. It can, in fact, bring new problems.

How, for example, should a country once known for sending legions of people abroad deal with its own crop of immigrants? What does it mean to be Irish, given that so much of the national psyche is tied up in centuries of poverty?

Irish newspapers have been filled with accounts of the pitfalls of growth, secularization and wealth, some of them trivial, a few of them serious: suicide is at record levels, divorce is increasingly common, property prices are soaring, traffic is horrendous, personal debt is spiraling up, faceless commuter suburbs are sprouting and teenagers are taking too many drugs and buying too many things. Even the high cost of a cup of coffee has become a lightning rod, prompting people here to label the country Rip-Off Ireland.

And this paragraph, later on in the Times story, sums it up quite well:

Eradicating poverty, everyone agrees, is a worthwhile goal. But Ireland was so poor for so long, and its poverty was so ingrained in its identity, that some wonder whether Irish culture and character - its keen sense of community, its sharp humor in the face of hardship - will be steamrolled by the rollicking economy.

We don't know about you, but this reminds us of those stories about the sensitive types who get upset when some village in Africa finally gets electric power. Such complaints are, of course, idle and senseless, because they steamroll the idea the villagers might just want electricity. The same principle, we submit, applies here. So we are glad Ireland's doing so well, and are glad the quality-of-life there is improving, and we very much hope it continues. This is because, last time we checked, it's not fun being impoverished.

But let's not stop there, please. As an example of the pain which impoverishment causes a nation, we present the case of Scotland, which some of our ancestors fled long ago for a better life here in America. And when one compares Ireland to Scotland these days ... it's not pretty.

Consider: were an Irish person abroad to visit Ireland, he would visit a vibrant, pleasant island which is comfortable, wealthy, and where nearly everyone has a job. Not only that, they have an enviable and proud shared culture.

Scots, on the other hand -- well, Scots've got Robbie Burns and haggis. Also we could watch in horror as the respective fans of Rangers and Celtic beat the stuffing out of each other.

This is downright frustrating. It's also frustrating that a full 266,000 Scots are supposedly "incapacitated" and receiving dole payments, and a full one out of four adult Scots have no job. That figure rises to one out of three in Glasgow. In fact, the dependency is so bad that, as Fraser Nelson wrote recently in The Scotsman, that "a two-parent family with a stay-at-home mother, average income and a mortgage is only 4 a week better off than a single-parent household reliant entirely on benefits."

The end result, of course, is clear. As Prof JP Duguid, of Inverness, put it in a letter to that fine publication: "Heavy taxation to fund welfare and its administration crushes businesses and deters careful couples on modest incomes from having enough children. Careless couples and single parents are left to populate the nation with an increasing proportion of badly brought up, ill-behaved children."

We would add, an increasing proportion of children who won't have good jobs or much chance of escaping the poverty in which they were born. This is what happens when one erodes the family unit through well-meaning but badly-conceived ideas.

And as if all this wasn't bad enough, the Scots are becoming a nation of spendthrifts. That's ... they're Scots, for God's sakes. Whatever happened to the values of work and thrift? Whatever happened to "keeping the Sabbath, and everything else?"

Ugh. We can't go on. Anyway, to recap -- poverty sucks. And we're very happy for Ireland, not only because they're doing well, but because they've apparently figured out what not to do. We wish we could say the same of our own homelands.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 4, 2005 09:21 AM | TrackBack