As its very name suggests, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s tale of two cities is pure fiction, a myth that formed the intellectual basis of leftist politics long before Marx turned it into “science.” Its key idea is that the rich are rich because they have somehow extracted their wealth from the poor, causing their poverty. Thomas Paine said it in 1797: “The accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labour that produced it.” Thomas Carlyle said it in 1843, almost a generation before Das Kapital: “‘My starving workers?’ answers the rich mill-owner: ‘Did not I hire them fairly in the market? Did I not pay them, to the last sixpence, the sum covenanted for? What have I to do with them more?’”
In the early days of industrialization, when nearly naked children pulled carts of coal through mine shafts and factory workers got ground up by unfenced machinery, this tale had a core of truth. But what should we say about New York’s early-twentieth-century sweatshop workers in the mass-produced-clothing industry that other Jewish immigrants had just invented? Would they really rather have been back in the shtetls from which they came, and did they really think that giving their children the opportunity that America offered didn’t make it worthwhile? As for New York’s poor of today, there is not a scintilla of truth in the notion that the co-op dwellers of Fifth and Park Avenues have caused their poverty—not even if you believe that Wall Street hanky-panky is the cause of the deep unemployment America suffers five years after the outset of the financial crisis.
The trouble with the two-cities narrative is less that it is false and more that it has become a cause of the very poverty it pretends to explain—especially in the case of the minority poverty so prevalent in New York. The belief that people are poor because they are victims of economic injustice, and that the nation owes the African-American poor, in particular, some kind of reparation for the slavery and racism that supposedly has kept them perpetually poor, led to a War on Poverty that began half a century ago and that resulted in a welfare system that today, together with food stamps, public housing, and other benefits, provides its recipients with more income than a minimum-wage job, vaporizing the economic incentive for going to work. Worse, the elite mindset that conceived the War on Poverty permanently transformed the nation’s culture in ways that entrenched the poor in their poverty. Thanks to the elites in the press, the government, and the universities—thanks to the writers, preachers, and teachers who have made “social justice” the reigning orthodoxy—the once standard belief that it’s dishonorable and unmanly not to work, at however menial a job, to support your family has given way to the view that there’s no shame in accepting reparations for victimization. Combine these economic views with the change in elite views about sexuality that, also about 50 years ago, destigmatized casual sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing, and you have a sure-fire recipe for a caste of perpetually poor people, disproportionately minority, who rarely work or marry, and who form families headed by young, inexperienced, and ill-educated single mothers, poorly equipped to give children the moral and cognitive nurture, the thirst and drive for education they need to succeed in an increasingly skills-based global economy.
If you were going to divide New York into two cities—one rich, one poor—this would be the poor one: female-headed families living in housing projects or Section 8 apartments with flat-screen TVs and refrigerators stocked with food-stamp plenty, for generation after generation, whose unmotivated kids learn little from bad schools that cost more than almost any other public schools in the country—schools that only the most determined manage to learn enough from to escape the government-financed ghetto, leaving behind the average, ambitionless mass to become the parents of the next generation. The rich New York would be exactly the opposite: people who get married and mostly stay married, who work hard to give their kids the best educational credentials and enrichment programs they can afford (alas, with a full measure of social-justice ideology and resume-burnishing social-service summer internships), who worship the work ethic, and who pay the taxes that support the other New York.
An observer from another planet would ask, Why does such a bizarre system go on, seemingly without end? Why does the rich New York keep supporting the poor New York, and why does the poor New York not improve its lot? Why are these the Americans who won’t do the jobs that Americans won’t do?
The answer is that the real division in the city is between the wealth creators who pay the taxes and those who live off them, a class that includes not just the welfare poor but the vast army of city employees whose jobs exist supposedly to ameliorate their condition but who actively perpetuate it—the Housing Authority administrators, the public school teachers purveying a curriculum of social justice and an ideology of victimization, the domestic-violence counselors trying to fix unfixable families, the welfare workers on whose watch some poor child is horribly killed every year, the Public Advocate who apparently is supposed to promote some public concern that the City Council has failed to grasp, the civil rights commission on the lookout for racial abuses that the state and federal civil rights commissions have somehow missed, the tax-funded social-service agencies that wouldn’t exist were there no social pathology to address—in short, the Bill de Blasios of the world, constantly spewing out their myth of two cities that justifies their existence, feeds their self-righteousness, and keeps the votes and money pouring in.
The intergenerational poor are not a problem to be solved but a resource to be exploited—at least as long as the shrinking numbers of taxpayers, from rich Wall Streeters to ink-stained journalists, whose jobs technology is changing and inexorably shrinking, are still here to pay the bills.