by Brian Balfour
Senior Vice President of Research, John Locke Foundation
For all their virtue-signaling about caring for the poor, the progressive game plan to help the poor has an abysmal track record.
The current game plan for cradle-to-grave government involvement to “solve” poverty has existed now for decades and includes the following:
Naturally, progressives might take a different view. Their primary objection would be to claim that their favored government programs are just “underfunded” and that confiscating more tax dollars to pour into these programs would fix poverty.
For instance, K-12 education spending has exploded for decades nationally, with little to no results to show for it. The below chart from the Cato Institute is especially damning.
Source: Cato Institute
For the 40-year period from 1970 to 2010, government spending on a K-12 education grew by nearly 200%, after adjusting for inflation. Even with such a massive spike in spending, test scores did not improve, and in one notable case they declined.
The one-size-fits all government model, weighed down by bureaucracy and lacking real accountability, is destined to leave many behind, regardless of funding levels. And don’t believe claims that schools in low-income areas fail due to a lack of funds. Previous research on North Carolina school funding found that “if any trend can be detected, it is that low-income districts tend to receive higher levels of per-pupil funding than their higher-income colleagues.”
And what about poverty programs? For North Carolina, I tracked spending on government “public welfare” programs from 1991 to 2016 along with the state’s poverty rate. During that time per-capita, inflation-adjusted spending on public welfare programs more than doubled, from $1,800 to $3,700. Indeed, during this time state public welfare spending topped $570 billion. What was the result?
Of course, poverty fluctuated along with economic booms and busts, but the overall trendline headed upward. In other words, more than half a trillion in spending on welfare payments resulted in higher poverty.
More than half a trillion in spending on welfare payments resulted in higher poverty.
Nationally, the poverty rate was falling rapidly in the years leading up to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” efforts. Ever since, countless trillions have been spent on such programs but poverty rates have budged very little, and have spent many years higher than when the programs began. One striking consequence of these programs, however, has been the destruction of the family unit, particularly felt by Black families.
The result has been to concentrate poverty in single-parent households. For instance, in North Carolina children in single-mother homes are five times as likely to be in poverty than children in two-parent homes.
Freedom Offers a Better, More Moral Game Plan
Government efforts to address poverty not only fail to alleviate poverty, they facilitate government dependency and tear at the fabric of civil society. On one hand, allowing for free people to exercise more choices over their lives and voluntarily work together to aid society’s least well-off using dispersed and localized knowledge to create targeted interventions will result in aid highly individualized to those truly in need. On the other, government programs are funded by force (via taxation), create bloated, paper-pushing bureaucracies, and empower the political elite with greater control over our lives.
The result is not only more poverty and helplessness, but greater tension between those forced to finance fruitless programs and recipients hardened with a sense of entitlement that comes with cold, impersonal government programs.
Imagine, instead, if freedom was allowed to flourish.
Low-income families could escape failing schools under a system in which funding flows to families, not systems. Families would be empowered with the ability to choose the best educational option for their children. Schools would be held accountable to families they serve because if they don’t serve the needs of their students, the students can easily leave for better options. True accountability is to the people, not politicians or government bureaucrats.
Low-skilled workers could more freely enter the workforce by offering their labor at affordable wages. Meanwhile, employers would be more willing to take chances on low-skilled workers they may want to help. The pay may be bad to start, but the experience, training, connections, and skills they gain will put them on a far more promising career trajectory than if they were locked out of the workforce due to minimum wage laws. A similar argument can be made about unnecessary yet burdensome licensing requirements.
Moreover, peeling back massive government interventions into the housing market would make housing more plentiful and affordable (likewise with health care, by the way), allowing for more and safer living options.
Combine these with greatly rolling back of the welfare state, which would eliminate poverty traps, destroy perverse incentives that destroy the family unit, and break the cycle of learned helplessness that accompanies government dependency. Instead of creating government dependency, imagine how many good-paying jobs could have been created by that half-trillion that went into social welfare spending?
Poverty itself would recede significantly, creating a situation in which fewer people are in need and a wealthier society would have more resources to address those needs.
The choice is clear: a caring society should demand freedom’s game plan to address poverty rather than the progressive path of government control and dependency that has generated devastating results.