In his bow to holding a “conversation” about the poor, supported by two other progressives at liberal Georgetown University against one lone conservative, President Barack Obama’s big idea was to “invest” more to combat poverty, especially minority poverty.
“We, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference. But it will cost us some money.”
Heritage Foundation welfare expert Robert Rector shows that the national government has spent $22 trillion (excluding Social Security and Medicare) — more than $70,000 for every person in America — since 1964 to support President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
It is true that 82 percent of poor adults today report that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money to buy food. But the most obvious results have been increased dependency, lower employment, dysfunctional central cities, and the decimation of the black family, all of which the president acknowledged
President Obama’s solution was to invest more in earlier childhood education, starting now at three and four years old, with better paid teachers and more infrastructure. After all the trillions spent, he simply cannot conceive that the programs may be a large part of the problem for the poor.
As Rector and his associate Rachel Sheffield document, “The War on Poverty crippled marriage in low-income communities. As means-tested benefits were expanded, welfare began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home, eroding marriage among lower-income Americans. In addition, the welfare system actively penalized low-income couples who did marry by eliminating or substantially reducing benefits.
“As husbands left the home, the need for more welfare to support single mothers increased. The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare promoted the decline of marriage, which generated the need for more welfare.”
The site of the recent riot in Baltimore was a declining neighborhood called Sandtown which the nation’s top experts had targeted for transformation in the 1990s, spending $130 million in the small community to do so. It was not just money, buildings and homes, but human capital too, in visits to and education of the local community.
One-fourth of Baltimore families received welfare. Three of the last four mayors, every city councilman, every police commissioner, a plurality of policemen and every police officer over the rank of major are and have been black for ages. The result: 51.8 percent of residents aged 16 to 64 are unemployed. The upshot is riots and ballgames played before empty stadiums.
The president demanded an end to cynicism on the right in questioning whether more money will work. But he himself conceded what was most needed was jobs, because they bring a sense of self-worth.
Yet, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the next generation of progressive leaders, have issued a new manifesto, “Strengthening the American Dream,” with the same old solutions, more money on top of the incredible $22 trillion and — number one — higher minimum wage laws.
That they and the president can make their first priority minimum wage laws that assure the jobless cannot get low wage jobs to start on the path up the employment ladder in an age of refundable tax credits reveals political cynicism of the highest order in its preference for welfare dependence over work for the poor.
The essence of the manifesto, as with the president, is that “Government policies matter and can make a difference.” They certainly can make a difference. The question is whether national government possesses the insight and ability to make things better.
The evidence of the past half-century suggests it does not. Today’s “experts” understand no better than did Johnson, the Sandtown experts or all of the others doing well by promising good.
Obama, Warren and de Blasio trace the current malaise to the economic deregulation of the ninety eighties. They fail to note that this was followed by 25 years of prosperity right down to the more recent government regulatory bubble pushing loans to people who could not afford them and the resulting 2008 Fannie/Freddie mortgage crash.
The solution is to return to the more flexible markets of the boom years and the constitutional order allowing people to take care of themselves in their own locales, backed by prudent local and private charity and targeted refundable tax credits.
While free decisions fail too, if those who make the decisions bear the costs, they can learn from them. Otherwise, expect more broken families, more dysfunctional Sandtowns, and more disappointed presidents.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of “America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution,” and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.