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Affirmative action's flawed logic

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Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

I always thought affirmative action programs should be based on income, not on ethnicity, gender or race. Maybe it's because I'm an economist by trade, but it seems obvious to me that the most fair, effective and efficient way for a society to run programs that are intended to help those most stuck at the bottom is to define “the bottom” in terms of individual income.

In contrast, to define “the bottom” in terms of group identity — to determine who gets preferential treatment on the basis of ethnicity or race — simply demotes the equal treatment of individuals to the back burner while elevating group victimhood and group assistance to the top of the public policy agenda.

Moreover, the identification of need for affirmative action by groups instead of individuals fully discounts the fact that there is plenty of overlap between groups in terms of disadvantage, privilege, opportunity, wealth and income. Not all whites are richer than all blacks, and not all women earn less than all men.

Consider this article in The New York Times: “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” Writing from Twin Branch, W.Va., Trip Gabriel reported that the local talk “is often of lives that never got off the ground” for decades.

“How's John Boy?” a former neighbor asked Marie Bolden, 50, about her son.

“He had another seizure the other night,” said Ms. Bolden as they talked in what Bolden called her “little shanty by the tracks.”

Gabriel described the family's circumstances:

“John got caught up in the dark undertow of drugs that defines life for so many here in McDowell County, almost died of an overdose in 2007, and now lives on disability payments. His brother, Donald, recently released from prison, is unemployed and essentially homeless.”

Said Bolden of son Donald: “It's like he's in a hole with no way out. The other day he came in and said, ‘Ain't that a shame, I'm 30 years old and carrying my life around in a backpack.' It broke my heart.”

In 1960, John F. Kennedy campaigned in McDowell County, the poorest county in West Virginia, Gabriel reported.

Half a century later in the same place, with the economy declining and poverty rising, “the communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.” Half a century after the War on Poverty began, 46 percent of children in McDowell County do not live with a biological parent, only a third of the county's population is in the labor force, nearly half of all income comes from federal programs, and McDowell has the lowest median household income and the highest teenage birthrate of the state's 55 counties while “the death rate from overdoses is more than eight times the national average.”

Another measure: “Of the 115 babies born in 2011 at Welch Community Hospital, over 40 had been exposed to drugs.” Explains Sheriff Martin B. West, a former coal miner: “Whole families have been wiped out in this county: mother, father, children.” And the way back? “The chief effort to diversify the economy has been building prisons,” reported Gabriel. “But many residents have been skipped over for the well-paying jobs in corrections: They can't pass a drug test.”

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (

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