Time For Conservatives to be the New Crusaders Against Poverty

pvrtyConservatives advocate a greater mobility for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, targeted tax relief for low-income workers and parents, and greater access to job skills education programs. Yet progressives continue to charge conservatives with doing nothing to address the plight of the poor. Progressives charge conservatives with being allies of the rich against the poor, even though during the Obama presidency the rich have prospered like never before, while the poor have fallen further behind.

However, it is not just the Left that is to blame for the perpetuation of this image of conservatism as unconcerned about the poor. Conservatives must also shoulder some of the responsibility for not aggressively enough promoting their anti-poverty agenda and for conceding this policy issue to liberals for far too long. But a vigorous anti-poverty activism would not involve a change in conservative principles or policies, since economic mobility and advancement lies at the core of the conservative philosophy.

Although conservatives criticize many social welfare programs, they have no objection to a safety net. Indeed, any humane society should have a safety net to catch the unfortunate, preventing them from sliding into an abject, dehumanizing poverty. But conservatives do object when these safety net programs themselves become a trap – trapping people in a state of perpetual dependency and preventing them from reclaiming a self-sufficiency that can lead to an independent and dignified life.

As demonstrated by the record of the past six years, the Left does not have a workable response to poverty. At a time when the stock market is at record levels and the rich are richer than ever, nearly 48 million Americans are receiving food stamp aid, up almost 50 percent since 2009. One in six citizens in the wealthiest economy on earth now rely on food aid from the government.

The conservative approach to understanding poverty is not to focus simply on government spending, but to examine the root causes of poverty. A primary cause is a lack of work. Consequently, the key to ending poverty is putting people to work. Existing social welfare programs not only have a dampening effect on job creation, but are structured in a way that discourages self-sufficiency. Today, a lower percentage of working-age Americans are working or seeking work than at any time since the Carter presidency. But the picture gets worse when it is broken down by income group. The wealthiest American workers recovered to full employment relatively quickly after the 2008 recession’s official end. But the working poor’s persistent double-digit unemployment rate rivals the Great Depression.

A second fundamental cause of poverty is behavioral. After all the countless studies repeating the same message, it is unquestionable that poverty is intertwined with certain destructive behaviors. People who avoid substance abuse, graduate from high school, stay out of jail, and hold even minimum wage jobs for at least a year, almost never end up living in poverty. Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation, to be cured by money; it is a state of chaos and a form of isolation from the kind of social connections and self-help networks that are so vital for economic advancement and that the upper-class certainly uses to its advantage.

A third fundamental factor in escaping poverty is the ability to take advantage of opportunities for advancement. And a valuable tool in this respect is education. Economic mobility and education go hand in hand. But progressive often treat education as just another social welfare program — with continual increases in public spending that serve primarily to expand the government bureaucracy. Per-pupil federal education spending is nearly four times its 1970 level, but there has been no detectable increase in student learning or skills. Conservatives, however, focus directly on improving the education received by students. Policies like charter schooling and school choice have worked whenever they have been implemented, especially in benefitting needy children. For instance, scholars from Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that school vouchers in New York City significantly increased the proportion of African-American students who went on to college.

A new conservative activism on poverty can be seen in proposals to increase the rewards of work to low-income workers. Such proposals include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers in low-wage, low-skill jobs. A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit is an effective anti-poverty program because it targets household income, and it provides an incentive for people to work because it is only offered to working households.

The Left views work as an oppressive aspect of life from which people should be liberated, as reflected in the argument for Obamacare that it would allow people to leave the workforce and still have health coverage. But a 2013 Census Bureau study found that people who worked full-time, at any wage, were four times less likely to fall into poverty as those who worked part-time, at any wage.

But an emphasis on work alone is not enough. Intact families, even those earning only the minimum wage, are unlikely to fall into poverty, and children growing up in such families are just as unlikely to be poor. Larger refundable child tax credits (applicable to both income and payroll taxes) and even savings incentives for couples of modest means would relieve some of the financial pressure than can tear apart marriages, as would the removal of marriage penalties embedded in many government transfer programs.

The failure of conservatives to aggressively advance a positive, countervailing anti-poverty alternative has helped allow much of the Left’s failed agenda to go into force. But the Left has used its poverty agenda not to advance the poor, but to advance the reach of government. The poor have become a reason for bigger, more active government. And that best explains the workings and designs of many federal anti-poverty programs, as well as why the Left opposes many conservative proposals – because those proposals don’t permanently enlarge government.

An aggressive conservative anti-poverty program, dedicated to the lifting up of people in need, will not only aid the poor, it will reinvigorate the conservative movement. For too long, conservatives have identified themselves as fighting against the Left’s mistaken policies. But the real point of conservatism is not negativism; it is the positive pursuit of helping people achieve the life they desire.

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