Poverty, Academia and PC Speech

Like many of you, I have been increasingly concerned about the stifling of free speech on US university campuses. Meanwhile, a lifetime concern of mine has been the elimination of poverty, both US and worldwide. These two interests converge in this disturbing article in Inside Higher Ed.

The piece opens with

Lehigh University asked professors in its business school to advise the new Biden administration on their areas of expertise via short “kitchen table talk” videos. But one professor’s short talk on poverty, including its relationship to race, proved divisive — and that the topic needed a more thorough analysis, the university said. So after temporarily removing the video for review, Lehigh reposted it alongside additional context from other scholars.

“Relationship to race” here meant that the professor, Frank Gunter, downplayed the Race Card: “Gunter explains that he wants to dispel the following ‘widely held’ beliefs about poverty: that it is ‘mostly a matter of race,’ that it’s a ‘generational curse’ and that the poor have ‘no agency.'” In particular, Gunter cites a Brookings study that found that three simple actions would in most cases enable the impoverished to join the middle class: “finish high school, work full-time, wait until age 21 to get married and have children after marriage.”

Of course, this is similar to the views of sociologist/politician Daniel Moynihan back in the 60s and 70s, which later fell out of favor, and I’ve generally been critical of Brookings for its “hired gun” nature. Yet the study is bipartisan, and even Gunter’s critics don’t seem to be vigorously disputing its points, merely calling the Moynihan view as “discredited.”

The critics do correctly note a major error of omission in Gunter’s video: Though his statement that most of the poor are not black, and most black people are not poor, as is indeed correct, he fails to note that the poor are disproportionately black; the poverty rate is higher among black people than in the general populace. Gunter was remiss in not including this in his original video.

The critics also note that various government programs have been successful in reducing poverty. One may debate as to whether Gunter erred in not mentioning this, but the critics themselves are remiss for not mentioning a government program that research shows has contributed to black poverty — an immigration policy that brings high levels of low-skilled immigration.

In addition, the debate seems to have overlooked the obvious key point: If indeed the three “silver bullets” of the Brookings study are statistically accurate, then why are many young black people not taking advantage of them? And even more importantly, what can be done to change that?

As the Lehigh faculty senate commented, “Too many times statements are made in response to uncomfortable topics that do little to address the issue at hand.” Lehigh, by now restoring the video and pairing it with one expounding an opposing view, should be applauded for attempting to start a genuine debate. This would not happen at many other universities these days, and sadly, I don’t expect it to occur within the Biden administration.