After five decades of liberal antipoverty programs that have produced only failure and futility, it is more than time for a conservative response to the problem of poverty—one that emphasizes work, family, and economic freedom.
Indeed, if the Republican party wants to regain the White House and be trusted to run the executive branch’s myriad poverty-related programs, it will need an agenda beyond simple budget cuts for poverty programs. Instead, conservatives need a plan to foster a dynamic economy in which far fewer Americans would need to rely on government in the first place.
To produce such a plan requires some knowledge of who the poor are. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 46 million Americans were living below the poverty line in 2011, about 15 percent of the population. That figure, roughly the same as in 2010, is only 4 points lower than the rate when Lyndon Johnson declared the “War on Poverty” in 1964. After falling to 17.3 percent in 1965 and a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, the poverty rate mostly floated between 11 and 15 percent over the intervening years, briefly crossing the 15 percent threshold in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s.
But the poverty rate has been on a steady climb these past five years and, by a variety of measures, Americans’ chances of escaping poverty have declined consistently since the 1970s. A search for root causes implicates just about every major social trend of the past several decades. To name just a few, technology has increased the returns on education and the penalties for poor skills and work habits; the breakdown of nuclear families has required already-limited resources to be stretched even further to support multiple households; and a growing welfare state has provided many of the wrong incentives. These trends are extraordinarily difficult to reverse.
Conservatives long have made the moral case that the poor, like everyone else, should be held accountable for their choices. And it’s true that people who marry, avoid substance abuse, graduate from high school, avoid going to jail, refrain from having children out of wedlock, and hold jobs (even minimum wage ones) for at least a year almost never end up living in poverty.
It’s also largely true that today’s American poor do not face privation to quite the same degree as either earlier generations or the poor elsewhere in the world. In the United States today, poor people rarely miss meals, though they may wonder where the next meal is coming from; they generally don’t end up homeless, although they may come close; and they typically can get needed medical care, although it takes a lot of work to do so.
All that said, being poor still involves significant misery, constant insecurity, and material deprivation. Moreover, many of the conditions that trap Americans in poverty are the direct result of government policies, often implemented with good intentions.
The lives of America’s poor are ones in which even relatively minor difficulties can quickly spiral out of control, making it almost impossible to plan for the future. A small but telling example: One recent study published in Pediatrics detailed how a lack of money to buy diapers can throw a poor family into crisis, causing a mother to skip work to avoid leaving her diaperless child at daycare. Even basic services that most Americans take for granted, like low-cost checking accounts, often are unavailable to those without means, forcing the poor into the expensive and inefficient financial services offered by check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders.
In these and a thousand other ways, the American social system today requires more resources and wherewithal to navigate properly than in the past. In today’s market, access to technology is increasingly necessary to find a job, and the number of well-paid jobs available to people with modest education has plummeted.
Government regulations exacerbate the problem. A recent report from the libertarian Institute for Justice shows that state licensing laws force workers who aspire to ply an array of moderate-skill trades to spend an average of nine extra months in schools that prepare them for licensing exams, paying hundreds of dollars in fees along the way. Such hurdles place a disproportionate burden on those of limited means.
Meanwhile, government assistance programs often seem better designed to serve the middle class than the poor. Dozens of state and federal college programs offer extra money to help middle-class students attend the college they choose, but the sort of comprehensive support poor students need to even consider attending a four-year university is extraordinarily difficult to come by.