DOES GOVERNMENT CAUSE POVERTY?
Some interesting facts and opinions from Michael Tanner, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, from his new book, The Inclusive Economy.
“Despite what you may hear about how stingy we are as a country, we spend an enormous amount of money fighting poverty. The federal government alone has more than 100 different anti-poverty programs—about 70 which provide benefits directly to individuals and the remainder which provide benefits to poor communities. The federal government spent roughly $700 billion last year on these programs. State and local governments kick in another $300 billion, meaning we spent about a trillion dollars fighting poverty last year.
“Since 1965 when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, we’ve spent about $26 trillion in constant 2018 dollars fighting poverty. And the question is: what have we gotten for this money?
“Even the federal government can’t spend a trillion dollars a year and not accomplish something. You could fly over the country in an airplane, shovel a trillion dollars out of the back, and actually reduce poverty.
“But is that really enough? Is that all we should do? If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, down at the base there’s food, shelter, and other basic needs. We do a pretty good job of providing that, but moving up that pyramid we find accomplishment and self-actualization—human flourishing the idea that people should be able to achieve everything that they can with their talents and abilities. They should be self-sufficient. They should have control over their own lives and destinies.
“And I defy you to go to some place such as Sandtown in Baltimore, or East Fresno, California, or Owsley, Kentucky—the poorest communities in America. And look at folks in those communities and say, are they thriving? Are they achieving everything they can? Are they masters of their fate? And the answer would clearly be no.
“So, I wanted to look at something different and ask: is there a better way that we can fight poverty in this country than what we’ve been doing, which is simply throwing money at the problem? I started at the beginning in The Inclusive Economy asking, ‘why are people poor?’ I found that there are basically two competing theories on the left and the right about poverty.”On the right people basically said, “it’s the poor’s fault.’ They say the poor make bad choices, there’s this culture of poverty, and they point to something called the success sequence. This view says that if you finish high school, you get a job, and you don’t have children until you get married, your chances of being poor are very slim. All of those are true individually, and if you do all three of those things the likelihood of being in poverty is very, very slim. ‘OK, clearly the poor are making bad choices. They’re not doing these things, and that’s why people are poor.’
“If the right blames bad choices, the left says, ‘No. We blame society.’ They look at things like racism, gender discrimination, and economic dislocation, and say ‘these larger societal issues are what ultimately leads to poverty.’ That if you look at the abysmal history we have in this country of how we’ve treated people of color and women, those things contribute to where people are today.
“So I asked, ‘Which of these is correct?’ and ultimately I concluded that both are to some degree, and that neither are to a large degree. Clearly the right has a point that you can’t strip poor people of agency and pretend that their decisions don’t matter, that there are no consequences to their actions, that nothing they do ever matters. That’s an incredibly demeaning way to treat the poor.
“But we must take into account the context in which choices and decisions are made, what economists refer to as the constraints on our decisions. And the simple fact is, if you’re a poor black child growing up in inner-city Baltimore you face a very different set of circumstances than if you were a white kid growing up in the suburbs in Chevy Chase, Maryland. If you live in an area where there are no jobs, the schools are terrible, and the police hassle you ever time you step foot outside your door, then you’re going to make very different choices.
“So both theories have something to them, but both are also missing a much bigger point and a much bigger villain in the debate. As I looked more and more into this, I found that the real problem isn’t the poor themselves, and it isn’t society. It’s the government. If we really wanted to fight poverty in this country, what we should do is tell the government to stop making people poor.
“So what I laid out in the book are five areas where I thought that we could implement libertarian solutions to government policies that are pushing people into poverty.
‘Number one is criminal justice reform. Our criminal justice system is prejudiced against low-income people and people of color at every step from the top to the bottom. This has a significant impact on poverty. You can commit an offense—
something that shouldn’t even be an offense—when you’re young and end up with
a criminal record that 20 or 30 years later is following you around and preventing
you from getting a job. You can simply look at the number of young, black men
who are in the criminal justice system, who are basically taken out of the job
market, and therefore also taken out of the marriage pool, so to speak.
“William Julius Wilson suggests that there are a million and a half young black
men who are either in jail, on probation, or have a criminal record that renders
them unemployable or unmarriageable. You know, conservatives have for a long
time pointed out that poor women shouldn’t have children if they’re not married.
And they say, we need to encourage marriage. Who the heck are these women
supposed to marry?
“We take the men in these communities and lock them up for something like
having marijuana or—my God, remember Eric Garner in New York, who was
killed because he sold an untaxed cigarette. If we lock people up for things that
shouldn’t be crimes and tag them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives,
we shouldn’t be surprised that we create large pools of poverty. Scholars at
Vanderbilt University estimate that if we had criminal justice reform in this country
we could reduce the poverty rate through that step alone by 20 percent.
“Second: we need to reform the government-run school system that is leaving so
many people behind. It’s not a matter of spending money. We spend tons of
money on education. In fact, we keep spending more and more money without
getting any better results. You can look at some of the worst school systems in the
country and find that they spend more per student than anywhere else. What we
really need if we want to reform our school systems is choice and competition.
And we can argue about what the best way to do that: charter schools, vouchers,
tuition tax credits. But we need to make sure that the school system operates for
the children and that the parents are in control.
“Third: we need to reduce the cost of housing in this country. The poor spend a
disproportionate amount of their money on housing about 40 percent of then-
income on average. This causes a lot of problems. If you’re spending a lot of
money on housing you don’t have a lot of money for other things, obviously. It
also locks the poor into bad neighborhoods because they can’t afford to move to an
area that might have a better school, less crime, or more jobs. And the cost of
housing is often driven by government politics, in particular zoning, which can add50 percent to the cost of housing. Across the country it’s about 10 percent, on average.
“If we really want to make housing affordable in this country, it’s not a matter of having more subsidies to chase ever-higher costs. It’s a matter of getting rid of those regulations to reduce the cost of housing, so the poor can have mobility and move into the areas where the jobs are.
“Fourth: we need to increase savings among the poor. Now this is kind of axiomatic but we often forget that the opposite of poverty is wealth. We want to encourage poor people to save money and accumulate wealth, but our policies are often perversely designed to encourage consumption and discourage savings. That includes banking laws. We’re so terrified of terrorism and drug-money laundering that we require all sorts of special rules and identification in order to open a bank account. You know, people worry in this country about whether you need an ID for voting. About 20 percent of poor people in this country don’t have sufficient identification to open a bank account! Just imagine what it means if you can’t open a bank account. It means you can’t borrow, it means you can’t save, it means that you have to go to these check-cashing places that charge you high fees. It means you’re walking around all the time with wads of money in your pocket so you get robbed, or the police pick you up and think you’re a drug courier because you have $500 in your pocket.
“And finally, perhaps most importantly, we need to have inclusive economic growth. Nothing has lifted more people out of poverty than economic growth. Throughout most of history man was desperately poor. There was a small aristocracy that was slightly less starving than the people below them, but basically we were all in abject, miserable poverty throughout most of mankind’s history.
“And then about 300 years ago something happened. Human wealth began to increase, and people began to rise out of poverty. That something was modern free-market capitalism. But economic growth will only lift people out of poverty if it’s inclusive, if everybody can participate in a growing economy.
“What we really need to do is look at what is preventing poor people from becoming rich.
“By implementing powerful libertarian solutions that involve more liberty, more freedom, and less government, we can create prosperity that benefits everyone including the poorest people in our society.”
DOES GOVERNMENT CAUSE POVERTY?