The Magazine

The Right Ideas . . .

For fighting poverty.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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Among the proposals on the table to get people back to work: government programs that treat the working poor differently from those who aren’t working; stronger work requirements for people receiving benefits; benefits that taper off gradually as individuals get jobs and start earning, rather than stopping abruptly and so discouraging work; refined low-income tax credits that refund more as workers earn more; federal loans to help poor people relocate where jobs are more plentiful; even cash bonuses for the long-term unemployed when they go back to work. 

Bottom line: Instead of cash payments and in-kind benefits that shore up poor families year in and year out, well-designed incentives can deliver more for less, as government spends wisely to trigger a pivotal change in people’s lives. This isn’t just about saving money—although it would save money, and surely that matters. It’s about how to make a difference in the way poor families live. 

The third premise behind the new thinking is that those closest to the problem know best how to remedy it, and government money should follow their choices, not try to impose a one-size-fits-all answer from Washington. This is the principle behind school choice, the nation’s most effective antipoverty strategy, and the new conservative thinkers would extend the concept to other realms. Senator Rubio proposes to send all antipoverty funding back to the states to disburse as they see fit. Senator Lee wants federal education dollars to follow students—who could spend the money for college, if they feel that’s the best route for them, or for other options like online learning, apprenticeships, or certification exams. Still other proposals would give poor people vouchers to pay for housing and education of their own choosing. What these ideas have in common: experimentation, flexibility, competition among service providers, and support for solutions that actually work on the ground.

The new thinkers’ final premise: We should measure outcomes and reward success, spending most on the programs, whoever runs them, that help the largest number of people escape poverty. It’s an obvious idea, long overdue, and it could take many forms. Federal policy should evaluate state efforts and reward the most successful. States should measure and reward effective local initiatives. And government at all levels should provide appraisals that help poor families become more informed consumers, making choices and spending the aid they receive on programs that will work for them. 

The liberal critics aren’t wrong: GOP thinkers are deeply skeptical of government. And whenever possible, Republicans do want to limit its reach so that the far more potent forces of civil society and the free enterprise system can kick in to lift Americans out of poverty. But the new thinkers all recognize that government can and must help. The answer isn’t just less government—it’s also better government. 

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, is working to launch a Washington policy shop advancing a center-right agenda on opportunity and social mobility.

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