Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently was savaged by partisans for suggesting “culture” — perhaps he should have said “the social patterns that become embedded over time” — is the root of poverty. It is an unexceptional and incontrovertibly true statement that being in poverty is more than transitory lack of funds; in fact, lack of wealth is a byproduct of the chaotic, jobless state in which individuals lack the ability to obtain wealth. It is also not controversial to note that if giving money were the solution, we’d have no poverty after decades of Great Society and similar state funding. Poverty, precisely because it is rooted in behaviors (out-of-wedlock births, school dropouts, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.), is difficult to combat.
With this background, Ryan opened the House Budget Committee hearing today with these comments:
Right now, the federal government spends nearly $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty. Yet the official poverty rate is the highest in a generation. And over the past three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record. Clearly, we can do better.
And Washington has a role to play. After President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, we made progress in some areas — but not enough. And, as the following chart shows, when we reformed welfare in 1996, we made even more progress—but still not enough. The evidence is clear: We do need a safety net, but there’s no substitute for economic growth. We need both of them to lift people out of poverty. Thanks to today’s lackluster recovery, we’re in a rut—household income is flat and there’s less opportunity to go around.
Those words were particularly timely given the news that gross domestic product growth in the first quarter was essentially flat, a recipe for joblessness and lower take-home pay, which affect most acutely those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
But Ryan is a conservative, not a libertarian, so he believes the free market alone is not sufficient to address this issue. “The question isn’t whether the federal government should help. The question is how,” he said. (Some on the far right or in the libertarian camp may differ even with this statement, which puts them entirely at odds with the vast number of Americans.)
For liberals the answer is easy: spend more. For them, a cut in a government program, no matter what its effectiveness, is an attack on the poor. It is all about inputs and intentions. It is also a zero-sum game in which allowing middle- and upper-class taxpayers to keep more of their money deprives the poor of something.
For libertarians and some far-right conservatives, poverty gets subsumed by what Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center calls the “green eyeshade” mentality: “Jack Kemp famously called for the GOP to ‘take off its green eyeshades’ in the late 1970s. By this he meant that the GOP needed to stop focusing primarily on balancing budgets and start focusing on how to grow the economy and improve the lives of average Americans.” Olsen is referring primarily to the middle class but his insight is even more applicable to those farther down the income ladder:
This problem is compounded by the rise of super-donor-driven super PACs. Virtually all of the large donors who give to super PACs and GOP campaigns live in local versions of the Emerald City. They see highly educated people who get ahead by working hard, lots of prosperity and wealth, and think this is what America looks like. The major political problem they see is that some of their neighbors and friends vote Democratic, so they naturally think a national majority can be crafted by persuading those people to vote more on their self-interest and less on social and other issues. That view makes sense within the walls of the Emerald City, but outside of that realm America is a horse of a different color. . . . People with high-school degrees making $40,000 a year face problems very different from those of college-educated folks making $80,000. Their economic future is much more unstable, their job opportunities more limited, and their family finances more precarious.
(And I would add the same cluelessness plagues coastal elites: their children go to private schools, they live in gated communities and their interaction with the poor occurs when talking to their gardener or housekeeper. Hence, fashionable environmentalists who give heavily to Democrats prefer to stop the Keystone XL pipeline despite its obvious impact on joblessness.) Whatever the issue for some on the right, the answer is always tax cuts and balanced budgets. The disconnect between those policies – whatever their merit – and tangible action that might increase upward mobility is apparent to those outside the right-wing bubble. In a way, their approach to poverty is also about inputs, but instead of government spending they would input tax cuts and balanced budgets and claim a rising tide lift all boats.
Missing is what politicians like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and reformers like Michael Doar (who headed New York City anti-poverty programs) have been urging: A combination of pro-economic-growth measures with targeted, outcome-measured programs to promote personal responsibility, educational success, delayed child bearing and drug and alcohol prevention among teens and young adults in poverty. The economy has to be running fast enough to generate jobs, but those in poverty have to prepare themselves and arrange their lives so as to take advantage of the job opportunities that steady and vibrant economic growth produces.
If the government imposes nettlesome regulations that make labor too expensive or imposes taxes that discourage domestic investment, it can hurt the economy, but it hurts the poorest Americans the most. (Take a look at the poverty rate in the Obama era of flimsy economic growth.) When liberals rejoice that people have more “choices” because Obamacare takes the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs out of the economy, they are undercutting poverty prevention. And when the Justice Department blocks a successful Louisiana school-choice program, it is impairing the ability of poor and mostly minority children to climb out of poverty.
And for Republicans, rote slicing of discretionary programs while doing nothing to restrain entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which disproportionately help the rich, is both fiscally unproductive and unresponsive to the needs of those who might benefit from one of the more effective federal programs. Libertarians who tout drug legalization should consider the toll more freely available drugs will have on youth who already are inundated with temptations along the path to success. And anyone on the right who thinks private charity can do it all needs to look at magnitude of the needs compared against even the most generous private efforts.
It is good to have this discussion now; maybe it will continue in the 2016 presidential debate. Republicans will find that the “green eyeshade” types (e.g. Sen. Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, George H.W. Bush) don’t do so well in elections while those pro-growth, pro-upward mobility Republicans get two-term presidencies (e.g. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush). “Compassionate conservatism” was a term that rubbed some conservatives the wrong way, but in practice it was smart politics and smart policy: The best conservatives in every sense are those who encourage free market growth and intensified anti-poverty programs in the public and private sectors. The GOP contender(s) who can articulate such a vision will be worth supporting.