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Carson: Solve income inequality with opportunity, not entitlement

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

There has been much discussion about income inequality recently. President Obama seems to think we can make significant progress in eliminating poverty by raising the minimum wage, as his State of the Union address highlighted.

Many hope that through a simple declaration, the poor can be elevated to a higher social status. Such people fail to realize that pay is associated with value – otherwise, we could just pay everybody $1 million a year and let everybody be rich. In a capitalistic society, those individuals who produce the wherewithal to obtain income tend to be paid quite handsomely, while individuals who don’t generate significant income are paid accordingly.

As in any situation that involves human beings, there will be some abuses, but generally speaking, this kind of system works by incentivizing individuals to do the things necessary to enhance their value in the marketplace.

Many in the current administration and their sycophants in the news media are trying to persuade Americans that there is significant improvement in the general economy. But record numbers of people are enrolling in the food-stamp program and receiving various government subsidies. Common sense dictates that if the economy were improving, there would be an accompanying decline in the number of people depending on government supplements.

As a child, I was eyewitness to people who preferred a sedentary, nonproductive life as long as they could collect public assistance. Others, including my mother, from the exact same environment, worked incessantly to try to improve their own lives and those of their children. My mother worked as a domestic in the homes of wealthy people who were generous to her because she was dependable, honest and hardworking.

They also learned about my brother and me, because my mother would share our stellar report cards with them once we had conquered our academic doldrums. As a result, these successful people would send us significant monetary incentives to keep up the good work. One of them even loaned me his luxury convertible for a special occasion. 

I was never resentful of the wealthy; I was inspired by their achievements and wanted to achieve at the highest possible levels so I could realize my potential and enjoy a pleasant lifestyle.

Luxury and a comfortable lifestyle are no longer goals of mine; they are byproducts of making myself valuable to society. I recognized after many difficulties in early childhood that the person who has the most to do with what happens to me in life is me. Other people and the environment could not thwart me unless I permitted it. Only my attitude and acceptance of the victim mentality could get in the way.

As an adult, the best thing I can do for young people is to give them hope and opportunity. We all need to realize that by showing them kindness and sharing with them, we can have a significant, positive impact on their lives.

We must, however, go beyond rhetoric and put concrete plans into action to allow people to ascend from the lower socioeconomic levels to the apex of our society based on their hard work and creativity. 

We should be thinking about creative ways to fund schools in order to even out the distribution of resources between wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods. Corporations and businesses need to concentrate on mutually beneficial apprenticeships and internships for potential workers in their cities. Courses in basic finance and work ethics should be offered in places where such knowledge would not be redundant. These are constructive things that can be done by “we the people.” 

This does not mean the government doesn’t have an important role to play in promoting economic health. The following Jeffersonian quotation is an excellent definition of good government: “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

In other words, protect people and get out of the way. Let’s use innovation to create opportunity, instead of using government to suppress it. Once we have a vibrant economy, entitlement reform will be a much easier discussion.

• Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.

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