Issues analysis
The 'right deal': the conservative anti-poverty approach
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
January 1, 2015

Job creation at every level. The ability of every parent to choose the school his or her child attends. A greater mobility for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. A reformed and more affordable higher education system. Targeted tax relief for low-income workers and parents. Greater access to job-skill education programs.

Conservatives generally advocate all these policies, and yet they continue to be charged with doing nothing to address the plight of the struggling members of society. Liberals charge conservatives with caring only about the rich, even though Democrats represent the wealthiest districts in America. Liberals charge conservatives with being allies of the rich against the poor, even though during the Obama presidency, the rich have prospered like never before and the poor and middle class have either stagnated or fared badly.

Despite these accusations, 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.

To reverse this image, conservatives must not only assert their poverty proposals, they must make the goal of improving the lives of vulnerable people a central focus of their entire policy agenda. But this central focus does not involve a change in conservative principles or policies, since economic mobility and advancement lie at the core of the conservative philosophy. What it does mean is that conservatives must measure all policies by their effect on the vulnerable. For instance, if certain income tax cuts won't likely help the vulnerable, since nearly half of all Americans have no net federal income tax liability, then perhaps such cuts are not a central issue that should define or preoccupy conservatives.

Conservatives have a great starting place in their campaign against poverty. A free market economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, both here and abroad. Even those who are poor have a much better standard of living due to economic progress. In inflation-adjusted dollars, groceries today cost 13 times less than 150 years ago. The typical person living below the poverty line not only has electricity and running water – something he didn't have sixty years ago – but also has microwaves, personal computers, air conditioning, and cable television. Three quarters of the poor own a car, and roughly a third have two or more cars. By 2011, the average per capita housing space for people in poverty was higher than the average housing space for all Americans in 1980.

This improvement in the living conditions of the poor does not mean that the plight of the vulnerable should be dismissed or ignored; it just means that the answer to the problem of poverty may well reside in something that has worked – economic progress – rather than in certain government policies that haven't worked.

But a criticism of liberal failures is no substitute for corrective action. In fact, conservatives' hesitancy to articulate a positive anti-poverty agenda only feeds the liberal claim that they don't care about the less fortunate. This is how President Obama, whose administration has been terrible for the poor, has been able to assail his political opponents as being indifferent to the poor and struggling.

If conservatives wish to broaden their appeal, they need to articulate policies that appeal across all demographic lines – and one political stand with universal appeal is concern for the poor and those who might fall into poverty.

A report card on the liberal anti-poverty program

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," which has been the centerpiece of liberal anti-poverty policies for the past half-century. In boasting of these policies, liberals often talk about the public funds that have been spent. And there's no question that money has been spent. Since its beginning, the government has committed $22 trillion (measured in 2012 dollars) to Johnson's War on Poverty. After adjustments for inflation, this represents about three times more than what was spent on all military wars since the American Revolution. Inflation-adjusted government transfers for social welfare programs soared more than tenfold between 1964 and 2013. And yet, despite all this spending, the present poverty rate is about the same as it was in 1967. The poverty rate is the highest in a generation, and deep poverty is near record highs.

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs at an annual cost of more than $940 billion. (This does not include Social Security, Medicare or Unemployment Insurance.) However, if we divide the nearly $1 trillion spent by the federal government on these anti-poverty program by the 46 million people in poverty, the government could simply distribute a cash payment to everyone in an amount exceeding $20,000, or nearly $82,000 for a family of four. That's almost four times the $23,850 federal poverty line for that family, and would immediately lift everyone out of poverty. Although this would not be a practical (or long-term productive) strategy, it does illustrate the ineffectiveness of the current federal programs.

The proportion of the population below the poverty line was dropping rapidly in the years immediately before the War on Poverty was fully underway. In the seven years between 1959 and 1966, according to the Census Bureau, the percentage of people living in poverty dropped by about a third, from 22.4 to 14.7 percent. Since then, however, the official poverty rate has been essentially stuck. In 2012, the national poverty rate was 15 percent – slightly higher than it was in 1966. But within this overall number, for instance, the poverty rates for children under 18 and for working-age people between the ages of 18 and 64 are all higher than in 1966.

As William Voegeli suggests in The Pity Party, the liberal social welfare approach often stems more from a "preference for political stances that demonstrate one's heart is in the right place" than from a concern as to whether "the policies as actually implemented can achieve their intended results" – consider, for instance, studies showing that patients on Medicaid fare even worse than those with no insurance at all, or the one that shows enrollment in Head Start makes no long-term difference to students' academic success, or Charles Murray's book Losing Ground, which showed how social welfare policies, by trapping people in miserable conditions, actually harmed those who most needed help.

This social welfare approach cares less about actually helping people than it cares about caring.

Public compassion becomes an end in itself, and the expansion of government becomes a means of perfecting the self-image of the policy-maker. As H.L. Mencken said, "the urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it." Consequently, what liberal policies have often achieved is not the transformation of people in poverty from dependency to self-sufficiency, but a continued expansion of a self-serving government bureaucracy.

The dependency trap

Historically, in its social welfare policies, America has tried to avoid dependence on government 'relief.' In his 1935 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt warned that:
    continued dependence on government support induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.
Recovery from the Great Depression, for instance, occurred hand-in-hand with a great decline in the numbers of people on public aid. In 1951, the Commissioner of Social Security reported that just 3.8 percent of Americans were receiving public aid, down from 11.5 percent in 1940. But with the War on Poverty and its successor programs, dependency has since soared.

Welfare dependence is at an all-time high, and dependency is spreading throughout society. As Nicholas Eberstadt writes:
    Dependence on government relief, in its many modern versions, is more widespread today, and possibly also more habitual, than at any time in our history. To make matters much worse, such aid has become integral to financing lifestyles and behavioral patterns plainly destructive to our commonwealth – and on a scale far vaster than could have been imagined in an era before such antipoverty aid was all but unconditionally available.
Although conservatives criticize liberal social welfare programs, they have no objection to an appropriately devised safety net. Indeed, any humane and civilized society should have a safety net to catch the unfortunate and vulnerable people, preventing them from sliding into an abject poverty they cannot survive. But conservatives do object when these safety net programs themselves turn into a trap – trapping people in a state of dependency and preventing them from reclaiming a self-sufficiency that in turn can lead to an independent and dignified life. A conservative safety net serves as a springboard out of poverty, rather than a permanent state of government subsidization. A safety net's goal cannot be the perpetual subsistence of poor Americans in barely tolerable lives – and it cannot discourage work.

The rise in dependency corresponds with a decline in workforce participation. The proportion of men 20 and older who are employed has steadily dropped since the War on Poverty began, falling from 80.6 percent in 1964 to 67.6 percent 50 years later. The proportion of adult men in the labor force, either working or looking for work, has likewise declined over that same period, falling from 84.2 percent to 71.9.

This male withdrawal from the workforce only took place after commencement of the War on Poverty, which then offered alternatives to work for able-bodied men. Similarly, the kind of family breakdown that has now become commonplace only began after the War on Poverty. Since 1965, America's overall out-of-wedlock birth rate has increased nearly six fold. When the War on Poverty began, seven percent of children were born outside of marriage; today, the rate is 42 percent. By eroding marriage, the welfare state has made many Americans less capable of self-support than they were when the War on Poverty began.

The nationwide work participation rate for welfare recipient households has failed to rise above 30 percent since 2006, even though the legislatively-set goal is 50 percent. But under President Obama, the federal government has shown little interest in pursuing this goal, choosing instead to return to the pre-welfare reform pattern of not encouraging work. The purpose of the 1996 welfare reform, on the other hand, required reinvigorating the work-participation rate, which resulted, for instance, in record employment and poverty reduction for minority women.

The focus of social welfare programs should be to help people move from dependency to self-sufficiency. But too often, government programs discourage work by making benefits more attractive than work, or by penalizing the rewards of work. In 2011, 38 million working-age households (i.e., with no member age 65 or older) received benefits from at least one federal welfare-entitlement program. Among those 38 million households, the average effective tax rate on additional earnings from work – a rate that includes the loss of welfare benefits as earnings increase – ranges from 36 percent to over 50 percent, depending on whether the additional income makes a family ineligible for Medicaid. These high effective tax rates discourage work and reduce employment.

The underlying problems of poverty

At a time when the stock market is at record levels and Wall Street is awash in money and the rich are richer than ever, almost 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 way to understand this problem, once the failures of past policies have been revealed, is to examine the root causes of poverty.

The War on Poverty campaign reflected the liberal belief that a strong enough central government, acting through agencies of expertise, could fix the "technocratic" problem of poverty manifested through "income gaps" arising from various market failures among various population groups. But as conservatives have always understood, poverty is not like an infection that can simply be fixed by a prescription of government antibodies.

The first cause of poverty is a lack of work. The key to ending poverty is putting people to work. But too often the liberal social welfare programs not only have a dampening effect on job creation, but are structured in a way that fosters dependency rather than 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 that of the Great Depression. And while small-scale entrepreneurship has traditionally represented a last-ditch path out of poverty, it is not doing so now. New business formation remains well below pre-recession levels, and the percentage of unemployed business-starters dropped from 11 percent in 2007 to 4 percent in 2010.

A second fundamental cause of poverty is behavioral. After all the countless studies repeating the same message, it is unquestionable that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies. Drug or alcohol abuse, criminality, domestic violence, family breakdown – all these factors have a strong correlation with poverty.

Poverty isn't just a form of deprivation to be cured by money; it's a form of isolation. According to Robert Doar, former Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (the city's principal social services agency), very few married, two-parent families ever need any form of welfare. People who marry before having children, 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. But work begins with employability, and behavioral problems can prevent a person from ever getting a job.

A third fundamental factor in escaping poverty is the ability to take advantage of opportunities for advancement. And in modern society, the most valuable tool in this respect is education. Economic mobility and education go hand in hand. But in the liberal scheme, this connection is often ignored. Instead, education is treated like all the other social welfare programs – 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. This has brought a sizeable increase in public education employment, but no detectable increase in student test scores in reading, math, or science.

To move beyond this vicious circle of ineffectiveness, conservative policies focus directly on improving the education received by students – policies like charter schooling, vouchers, and school choice. These policies have worked whenever they have been implemented, especially in benefitting needy children. In one 2007 study, 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. And research from Stanford shows that access to charter schools reduced NYC's black-white achievement gap by 66 percent in reading and 86 percent in math. Results like these are well proven, and yet still they aren't widely implemented, primarily because they might upset the status quo, protected by powerful public employee unions.

Education builds the human capital needed to participate in and advance through the free enterprise system, which has lifted far more people out of poverty than all the government programs combined. The best help to struggling families is a vibrant economy that offers an abundance of entry-level jobs. It would be cruel to emphasize policies that exclude people from the empowering engine of the free enterprise system, forcing them into the stagnating substitute of government dependence.

Job training is a key to getting people in the workforce, but the problem with federal job-training programs is that they often train workers for the wrong jobs or jobs that don't exist. According to a 2012 report by Sen. Tom Coburn, the Job Corps spent up to $76,000 per trainee, and it placed culinary students as pest control workers and nurse assistants as cashiers. As an alternative, the Wisconsin Fast Forward initiative, started in 2013 by Gov. Scott Walker, allows employers, rather than the state, to develop programs to train workers in the skills employers actually need.

Conservative policies

A new conservative activism on poverty is emerging from leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Mike Lee. Ryan has been particularly articulate in putting forth a conservative anti-poverty agenda. His goal is to encourage work, self-sufficiency, and upward mobility. Ryan, for instance, proposes increasing the gap between what work pays and what welfare provides by expanding the maximum Earned Income Tax Credit for workers in low-wage, low-skill jobs. (The EITC has been shown to draw low-income Americans into the labor force.) Ryan also proposes consolidating nearly a dozen federal programs and shifting the administrative control to the states, which could then tailor transportation, food stamp, heating assistance, or other aid to fit family needs. "Each person has a different issue: there are different kinds of poverty," Ryan explains. "Unfortunately, this Washington, one-size-fits-all, know-it-best-in-Washington approach, treats them all the same."

The experience in New York City shows how successful welfare reform can be. From 1995 until the end of 2013, the city's cash-welfare caseload shrunk from almost 1.1 million recipients to less than 347,000. There were also big increases in work rates for single mothers, up from 43 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 2009, and large reductions in child poverty, down from 42 percent in 1994 to 28.3 percent in 2008. These results occurred largely because the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations required welfare recipients to work or look for work, and take personal responsibility for their future.

Conservative policy should seek to ensure that no one who works full-time and heads a household lives in poverty. But this can be done through a better targeted anti-poverty program than the minimum wage increase. The 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 IRS estimates that in 2009 the EITC lifted nearly 7 million people out of poverty, but presently the EITC is not nearly generous enough for workers with no children.

Conservatives advocate policies that encourage employers to create more entry-level jobs. Such policies might include permitting employers to pay a sub-minimum training wage when they invest in developing the skills of the previously unemployed. They could also include relocation grants offered through the unemployment system to help people move away from pockets of high unemployment to areas with a surplus of jobs. But of course, this might disperse a particular voting group from a particular voting district represented by a particular political party.

But an emphasis on work alone is not enough. A true anti-poverty agenda must promote strong families. Married, two-income couples, 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. Currently, the size of the child care tax credit is low relative to the average costs of child care and has not been expanded since the 1980s. Also, it is not refundable – meaning, if a low-income household does not have a tax liability, it does not get the advantage of the tax credit, which is especially valuable for parents incurring child care expenses when they enter the workforce.

As for family structure, there is little the government can do, other than removing the marriage penalties embedded in many of the transfer programs. But the government should not discourage marriage. And rather than focusing all its marriage efforts on same-sex marriage, it ought to put some focus on trying to salvage the increasingly threatened traditional family. Maybe the government cannot promote a particular type of marriage, but it can at least not be discriminatory toward civic and religious groups doing so.


In the past, the Right has failed to formulate a positive, countervailing anti-poverty alternative to the failed agenda of the Left. As a result, much of the Left's agenda has gone into force. So it is now incumbent on the Right to offer its own better vision for the alleviation of poverty. A conservative anti-poverty agenda is one that offers both temporary relief and longer-term institutional changes, all aimed at holding out the possibility of steady employment and stable families.

Conservatives are ideally situated to address poverty. Given its belief in the biblical tradition of charity, the conservative approach incorporates a moral aspect never recognized by the Left, with its more materialistic focus on the relative distributions of wealth and on political objections to the private sector economy. But this focus cannot answer why helping the disadvantaged is ultimately the right thing to do.

The Left uses its poverty agenda not primarily to advance the poor, but to advance the reach of government. The poor 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. The Left has become so wedded to a primary focus on government that it has taken a secondary focus on the real interests of the poor.

The Left has also come to take a relative view of poverty. A true safety net approach should look at poverty from an absolute view, making sure that each person and family, standing alone, has enough to survive despite whatever hardships have occurred. But instead, the Left has looked at poverty from a relativist perspective, viewing them from the standpoint of the super wealthy, and then trying to reduce the disparities between rich and poor. But bringing down the rich does not help the poor. Indeed, the better focus is on making sure the channels for advancement and mobility for the poor are open.

A new and aggressive conservative anti-poverty program, making a central purpose the lifting up of people who need it, will not only aid the poor, it will revive 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 what they really need, upon sound principles. And the focus of conservatism is not an instinctual desire to build up government in the name of helping people. While government, in some cases, may offer a limited answer, it is not the automatic or best answer.

© Patrick Garry

RenewAmerica analyst Patrick Garry also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31