Treating America’s poor like broken windows


I have long respected Tanner’s work. I have described his book, “The Poverty of Welfare,” as meeting God face to face. As I read the statistics correlating poverty and social taboos, I realized that, while I wanted to keep the Ten Commandments because I love the Lord, what was even more important was that the Lord wanted us to keep the Commandments because He loves me. In other words, He wants to spare his children the agony of destitution.

The myth of the single mother making it was exposed as Tanner’s numbers showed, even though there are anomalies, that single moms were largely substituting traditional human fathers for tax-subsidized programs. Of course, nowadays that’s a given. The Obama campaign created Julia to compete with McCain’s Joe the Plumber. If you don’t remember, Julia was a girl who relied on government from cradle to grave, for everything from daycare to birth control, as if that is supposed to be good.

Julia, in fact, was the Shrew from Hades. Embracing polygamy as an alternative lifestyle, she and her ilk wanted to double-tax Mormon millionaire Mitt Romney to pay for her food, shelter, and child support. But she wanted to use government to sterilize the union so she would not owe Mitt so much as a thank you.

I digress. The bottom line of the latest report analyzes a handful of studies by reputable institutions that show that government spending on poverty has not done much to change the economic situation of the nation’s poorest. In fact, the more factors that are added to the analysis, the worse the government’s efforts appear.

Perhaps most astounding were the statistics on government welfare spending per poor person, as defined by the Federal Poverty Level. In 2013, federal poverty programs spent $14,848 per poor person, while state and local programs increased the total to closer to $21,113.

The authors are quick to point out that part of the reason is that some of the funding goes to help people who are already above the poverty line. In fact, the studies have shown that a lot of federal anti-poverty programs have only addressed the low-hanging fruit. While helping elderly persons in semi-stable economic circumstances, they have done little to lift those in deep, intergenerational poverty.

Viewed from some angles, the programs make things worse for the poor. The authors repeat what is now common knowledge, that the best way to avoid poverty is to, “(1) finish high school, (2) not get pregnant outside marriage, and (3) get a job – any job – and stick with it.” Socially-conservative think tankers like to add a fourth ingredient: (4) avoid addiction. Giving money to people for being poor is, by definition, an incentive.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is quoted as saying, “The period of social reform was most successful – was hugely successful – where we simply transferred income and services to a stable, settled group like the elderly. It had little success – if you like, it failed – where poverty stemmed from social behavior.”

The authors reference an earlier work they published in which they calculated, “In Hawaii; Massachusetts; Connecticut; New York; New Jersey; Rhode Island; Vermont; and Washington, DC, welfare pays more than a $20/hour job, and in five additional states it yields more than a $15/hour job.” When leisure is viewed as a commodity, the economic analysis could predict the outcome.

A speaker at a church conference I recently attended said something that stuck with me. He declared that while he has experienced economic hardship, he had never been poor. The Cato report elaborates on the concept. The authors argue the government is throwing money at people and putting them in programs to make poverty more comfortable. Poverty thus defined is a form of spiritual poverty, where the sufferer is unable to become a productive, contributing member of society.

The authors are not quick to dismiss all positive impacts government programs may be making on poverty. In fact, they applaud government tax credits, like the EITC, for encouraging people to go to work and thus begin lifting themselves and their children out of destitution. In-kind programs, by contrast, have shown no positive effect on eliminating poverty.

Compared to fifty years ago, overall living conditions for folks in the United States are undoubtedly better. The authors compare percentages of families that had working plumbing, electricity, telephones, computers, cars, and other amenities back in the 1960s and 1970s to what poor people have today. One reason the poor will always be among us is that government programs choose to define the poor as a set percentage of the population.

Most interestingly, if one reads between the lines of the report, one gets the impression that the reason poor people are better off materially, if not spiritually, today than they were when President Johnson declared War on Poverty, has more to do with political and economic liberty than any government program.

The Cato report shows that the economic lot of African-Americans improved hand-over-fist with the War on Poverty. However, something else, known as the Civil Rights Act, went into effect during the same time period. Women also gained access to greater economic opportunities. Unfortunately, in this situation, any financial advantage was overshadowed by the fact that women were taking on the role of heads of households. So, for women, the poverty rate, in the words of a University of California–Davis study, was “pulled in opposite directions.”

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