“Do you really care for the poor”, that is a question I have been asked many times even after almost two decades of working among the poor. For some, only specific policy preferences favoring material transfers are a sign of commitment to the downtrodden.

The question reveals a deeper reality, one that denotes a key deficiency in many poverty alleviation efforts. For some, it all start with the intentions, with an emotional attachment to the idea of helping others. Here, the inclination becomes foundational, at the very root of attending the problem. By placing an emotion as prior, we make reason instrumental, secondary. As the whole effort starts in the heart, the move to the mind might be a way to move quickly into action, not a foundational exercise of analysis. Rationalization is just at the door waiting whenever we have a powerful emotional need to do something.

A good example is the so-called “was on poverty.” A situation existed: poverty. However, when we examine carefully, poverty rates have been going down for decades before the 60s, and with the government never spending more than fifty billion dollars in poverty-alleviation programs. But there rose this emotional desire to end poverty. The emotion set a goal that is impossible, utopian and it called for action on a problem that was being addressed in the right direction systemically, instead of through interventions. It is often the case that such rational examination is deemed uncaring and a “do nothing attitude.” We see here at play the instrumentalization of reason that demands the anathematizing of contrary opinions, from then on deemed benighted and the creation of “a crisis.”

Interestingly, in the case of the war on poverty, the reasons given to act had the appearance of rational judgments and a desire to help people help themselves. President Kennedy told the nation that the effort was motivated by a desire to “help our less fortunate citizens to help themselves.” President Johnson followed with the theme of “making taxpayers out of taxeaters.” The slogan used was “give a hand, not a hand-out.” Sounds reasonable.

However, at the heart of the effort there was not a prior commitment to reason, just a desire to act to eliminate a problem we did not like. Although human conditions will always be attended by failure and even tragedy, the poverty warriors would have none of that and will crush anyone saying the opposite. After all, as President Johnson stated then referring to the violence and turmoil of inner city life, “All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs.”

Some opposed the effort by a clear minded appeal to the power of incentives. You do not make taxpayers out of taxeaters by creating more taxeaters! If you say you will take care of me and plug every hole of need in my life, I’ll let you. Encouraging dependence does not lead to independence. And that analysis was correct. Poverty, as said, going down exponentially for decades, receded the downward trend while government expenditures skyrocketed. All because we had to do something, following an emotional need that instrumentalized reason to such a point that failure to find positive outcomes could be excused, and is still excused in many ways. Just think of the reported and researched failures of Headstart.

When reason is made to be the slave of our passions, a consuming fire of appetite is seldom successfully restrained.