President Lyndon Johnson launched the modern war on poverty, declaring it to be his Great Society agenda in 1964. Fifty years and a great deal of economic expansion later, American society is indeed more prosperous. But, despite $16 trillion spent over those five decades to end poverty, the poverty rate in 2014 is little changed from what it was when LBJ issued his declaration.
This sad fact is not passing unnoticed. “The federal government has helped decrease material deprivation,” House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wrote in a recent paper outlining new strategies for fighting poverty. But he added that the war on poverty cannot be won simply by satisfying people's creature needs. True victory over poverty involves making people self-sufficient who currently are not — even if doing so proves more costly than cash welfare.
|True victory over poverty involves making people self-sufficient who currently are not.|
There is no one way to do this, which is why Ryan's paper suggests replacing the federal government’s multitude of ineffective programs with an evidence-based approach that allows states to experiment if they choose. To help people who already work but remain poor, Ryan calls for expanding the earned income tax credit, which currently reduces payroll taxes for low-income parents, to childless workers as well. He views this program as ideal because it provides people with extra cash, while encouraging work.
As a document intended to start a conversation, Ryan's “discussion draft” is excellent. It wisely dispenses with the green-eyeshade routine. The biggest problem with anti-poverty programs has not been their cost (which pales in comparison to middle-class entitlements) but their long-term failure. Second, Ryan's plan properly includes an element of criminal justice reform. At first blush, this may seem unrelated to poverty. But long-term imprisonment does more than just take away nonviolent criminals' freedom — it frequently impoverishes their families as well, guaranteeing that the disadvantages of poverty are passed from one generation to the next.
Ryan's proposal also seeks to root out government policies that destroy long-term growth in working-class wealth and disposable income. It calls on states and localities to abolish arbitrary state and local occupational licensing requirements, which often leave the poor unable to monetize valuable skills they have. On the federal side, it calls for mandatory congressional review for new regulations that disproportionately affect low-income households.
Criticism of Ryan's plan has been revealing. More frivolous commentary has accused him of heartlessly cutting funding. To underscore that he is not reducing spending on the poor, Ryan pledged recently in a presentation to the American Enterprise Institute that any state choosing to participate in his pilot program would receive “the same amount of money as under current law – not a penny less.”
Ryan has also been criticized from the Right, but conservatives should hold their fire while they wait to see what sort of legislation his ideas produce. After all, the conservative vision is not just of a government that is cheap to run, but of a thriving society where people who can support themselves do so, without having to depend on government. That is a conversation in which everybody should participate.