Conservatives are Fighting to Win the War on Poverty

Republicans have created a messaging monster. Not too long ago we were known as a party that fought poverty, promoted opportunity and ensured everyone had an opportunity to succeed. The spread of the American Dream was our goal and capitalism and free markets were our tools. But somehow, over the course of the past decade or so, we’ve lost our way. We’ve become singularly focused on the size and finances of the federal government. How big is the national debt? How large is the deficit? How high are tax rates?

In many ways these are important questions, insofar as they serve as reasonable, but imperfect, signals of the size and scope of government. And yet they also divert our focus away from arguably more important questions, such as: How, and how effectively, are our dollars being spent?

This over-emphasis on dollars and cents has made us sound materialistic and callous in the face of true human suffering. For instance, one recent poll found that 56 percent of Americans believe the word compassionate describes conservatives “not at all well.” That’s a problem, but more important, it’s disappointing because conservatism–far more than liberalism–holds the keys to establishing self worth, creating economic opportunity, and defeating poverty.

Liberals like to use government to move money from relatively wealthier taxpayers’ pockets to relatively poorer taxpayers’ pockets, while also allowing bureaucrats and middlemen to pocket a significant chunk along the way. Conservatives think it is wholly inadequate to simply shift pieces of the economic pie – we want to enlarge it. We want to create wealth where possible, and improve public assistance programs (rather than encourage bureaucrat-subsistence programs) where it is not.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to change. Strong conservative voices, backed by bold, innovative thinkers, are once again beginning to re-focus the conservative movement’s efforts on poverty. Two of those voices are Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott, each of whom see the failure of liberals’ anti-poverty schemes and an opportunity for conservatives to jump into the fray. They write in the Wall Street Journal:

President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964. Since then politicians have won votes by creating new federal programs, without bothering to check whether they work—because in the political market the currency is promises, not results. The federal government now runs more than 80 different antipoverty programs at a cost of about $750 billion a year. Yet 46 million Americans are poor today, and the poverty rate has barely budged: from 19% in 1965 to 14.8% in 2014. If you were raised poor, you’re as likely to stay poor as you were 50 years ago.

The left says these programs prevent extreme deprivation, and that’s true. But the federal government is not only putting a floor under people’s feet; it is gluing their feet to it.

Typically, this is when Republicans would jump into the notion that welfare programs trap poor Americans by making them dependent on government handouts. But Ryan and Scott argue something much different: The economic incentives of today’s antipoverty programs are constructed incorrectly. In short, most are means-tested, which means that the more money someone makes, the more federal aid they lose. It makes intuitive sense, but it also creates strong disincentives to earn additional money.

“Say you’re a single mother with one child,” they write. “You’re making the minimum wage, and you’re on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistances and the Earned Income Tax Credit. If you take a job that pays $3 more, you’ll keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar you make, after tax hikes and benefit cuts.”

In other words, the same fight that Republicans are waging against marginal tax rates for upper income level folks is applicable to anti-poverty programs for lower-income people.

Of course, that is far from the only tenet of the plan. Ryan and Scott also call for strengthening work requirements in antipoverty programs because “the greatest education of all occurs on the job,” for increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, for devolving programs out of the one-size-fits-all nature of Washington down go local governments who are much more in touch with social entrepreneurs on the ground, and for the creation of a new commission to create evidence-based policy in order to begin judging programs based on the results they achieve.

These types of ideas aren’t just the ticket out of poverty for many Americans, they’re also the ticket to a governing majority for Republicans. All it takes is reminding people that when we say we want to create jobs and economic opportunity, we’re talking about everyone, especially those trapped in poverty.