You can understand why Democrats don’t talk about the poor. With record-high poverty and an astronomical 46.7 million Americans on food stamps, the concern-for-the-little-guy party has nothing to say and no sympathy to express for these people. They are an inconvenient statistic for the former community organizer.
Consider the magnitude of the problem. There are more Americans on food stamps than the entire populations of Florida, Illinois, Nevada and Michigan (using 2011 data).
It is not, of course, that Democrats want to increase the number of chronically underemployed and unemployed people who need food assistance. It is simply they don’t know how to get them out of poverty, into the workforce and back to living independent lives.
The Obama solution, if you can call it that, is to spend more on food stamps. Is a massive increase in government dependency the solution to poverty?
Bill Clinton, like every other Democrat in the last 70 years, says Republicans don’t care about the poor. (The excuse for welfare reform was that it would hurt the poor, you may recall.) In fact, the Republican-inspired welfare reform has been one of the few successful (very successful) pieces of social legislation in the last 50 years. Only the civil rights legislation and the G.I. bill come close in their positive impact on the fiber of American society.
Meanwhile, the media are complicit in diverting attention away from the poor. How many front page stories have you seen on the topic? In the Reagan era the plight of the homeless was a constant feature in news reporting. Now, poverty — even childhood poverty — is ignored almost completely. It’s a bad topic for the president so the media avert their eyes.
What do Republicans want to do? We are told they want to “cut” Medicaid and other poverty programs severely. In fact, the rate of increase would be slowed under Republican plans primarily because, as was the case in welfare reform, states would be given flexibility to manage their own caseloads at less cost to the taxpayers. There is virtually no governor, Democrat or Republican, who says he could not do a better job assisting the poor with less money than the current system.
What else do Republicans favor? Well, inner-city school choice is up there. President Obama wanted to end the District of Columbia school voucher program; Republicans want to expand it. Since the Democrats are fond of quoting Condi Rice these days, let’s recall what she said last week: “Let me ask you, though, today, when I can look at your zip code and can tell whether you are going to get a good education – can I really say that it doesn’t matter where you came from – it matters where you are going. The crisis in K-12 education is a grave threat to who we are. . . . We need to have high standards for our students – self-esteem comes from achievement not from lax standards and false praise. And we need to give parents greater choice – particularly poor parents whose kids – most often minorities — are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights struggle of our day. If we do anything less, we will condemn generations to joblessness, hopelessness and dependence on the government dole.”
At the center of the Republicans’ approach to poverty is the unshakable belief that a thriving free market is the best antidote to poverty known in human history. Democrats like to pit capitalism against the poor, as if the former is a danger to the latter. But we know this is not true, that historically the growth of free markets and a booming economy vastly reduce poverty. It does not lift all boats, but it lifts millions of them.
In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney explained: “Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. Look around you — these aren’t strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans. His policies have not helped create jobs. They’ve depressed them, and this I can tell you about where President Obama would take America. His plan to put taxes on small businesses won’t not add jobs. It will eliminate them. His assault on coal and gas and oil will send energy and manufacturing jobs to china.” In short, if you care about the poor, you have to favor policies that increase investment, hiring, and growth in America.
American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks puts it best in advocating the moral case for capitalism: “Free enterprise doesn’t matter just because it’s made America the richest country in history. It matters because it has created an unparalleled system of human flourishing that is a magnet for people all over the world. It matters because it treats people fairly, based on their achievement and not their relationship to the government. It matters because it has lifted people out of desperate poverty by the billions.”
Democrats like to run against the strawmen opponents who want no government, no assistance to the poor, no restraint on the excesses of the free market. But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), thankfully, is not on the ballot, and Mitt Romney’s life is a shining example of devotion to communal assistance. If Democrats were to run against the actual views and beliefs of their opponents, they’d have to match their policy proposals stride for stride.
In his report responding to a Congressional Budget Office study on income inequality, VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan advocated that “policymakers must do more to promote broadly shared prosperity and economic growth”:
Streamlining job training programs, as proposed in the House-passed budget, would give more workers access to the kinds of mid-career educational programs that would help them keep up in a fast-moving, 21st Century global economy. Encouragement for school voucher programs would help lower-income parents find the educational alternatives that would help their children escape from failing public schools. And ending corporate welfare programs would strike a blow against a form of inequality that has unfortunately grown more pervasive over the past several years – an inequality that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism. . . .To the extent that debates about inequality shape the national discussion about the threat we face from ever-rising debt, policymakers should be mindful of the CBO’s findings that inequality grows when government grants income support to those who don’t need it, and it recedes when the tax system is made fairer, flatter, and more competitive. Reforming the tax code and entitlements would not only go a long way toward putting the budget on the path to balance and the economy on the path to prosperity; these reforms would also help promote upward mobility and equal opportunity for all Americans – core tenets of the American Idea.
Democrats have gotten used to measuring concern for the poor by the magnitude of their good intentions and the amount of money expended by taxpayers. In an election in which the poor are an unpleasant reminder of policy failures, Obama, Clinton and other self-righteous pols go mute. Better, they figure, to say that Republicans hate the poor than to explain what they have done and will do to alleviate poverty.
Conservatives have a different approach: Don’t ignore poverty; measure concern by results; and pursue policies that lessen dependency and promote self-reliance, social mobility and an expanding economy. To paraphrase the president, we’ve tried the Democrats’ approach and it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to try something new.