August 12, 2015

1353 words 7 mins read

The Compassionate Alternative to Raising the Minimum Wage

The headline is depressing, but I’m going to write it anyway:

America’s Slums Are Exploding

The story is in the Atlantic, a progressive publication. But they admit what so many Americans know: the welfare state has failed those who needed it most. And it’s failing those never needed it but were sucked into it nonetheless.

Half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the number of Americans living in slums is rising at an extraordinary pace.

Americans supported the war on poverty because we are decent, good people who hate to see others suffer. In 1965, we trusted our leaders to do the right thing. We trusted them with huge sums of money when they assured us that experts had a solution.

Well, experts had the solution to poverty. But Johnson listened to the wrong experts.

*[olympus_highlight color=“yellow”]Fifty years and twenty-two trillion dollars later, our slums are exploding[/olympus_highlight]. Poverty in America is a growth market.

Johnson’s war on poverty is lost.

But not the opportunity of America. The opportunity to improve American lives is as strong today as it was in 1789. We just have to unleash its potential.

There is no single solution to the sufferings of the poor, but that’s no excuse not to start applying the solutions that help. I see four major problems of poverty, each with separate solutions:

Poverty of Purpose: In America’s poorest places, generations have lived with the idea that their best hope is to qualify for federal handouts. They have been lied to. That lie has distorted their purpose in life. Instead of enjoying the dignity of work and the blessings of freedom to pursue happiness, they lived chained to the whims of bureaucrats and the indecipherable documents of government rules. People in poverty need a purpose that leads them from dependency to independence, from scarcity to abundance. And their first purpose must be to stand on their own and live their own life.

Poverty of Hope: In 1965, the poor had hope in government. Long before now, they should have realized their hope was misplaced. Hope in government is like hoping to win the lottery. It’s actually debilitating. Government was never the answer to their problems; government was their problem. The poor themselves are the solution. I’m not talking about a “bootstraps” sermon. Too many poor in 1965 didn’t have bootstraps to yank. But research those hope in oneself can change lives for the better.[olympus_highlight color=“yellow”]Arthur C. Brooks says that self-hope is when we say “it can be done” and “I can do it."[/olympus_highlight] Not the government, not the United Nations, not General Motors–me. Poverty programs steal this precious hope away by telling people to hope that Congress or the President is their only hope. We can give people real hope. It can be done, and we can do it.

Poverty of Opportunity: Too many conservatives living in beautiful, safe suburbs say “go get a job.” Despite the cheery employment reports that announce 215,000 new jobs, the reality for those out of work is far different. Most of the jobs created since 2009 are part-time positions that pay at or near minimum wage. More than 215,000 of those new jobs went to people over 55 years old, while those between 18 and 24 actually lost 8,000 jobs in July. If you’re 22-year-old college graduate who never had a baby out of wedlock but finished college in four years, you have to compete against someone my age with 30 years work experience for a job at McDonald’s. While liberals say, “so the kids get welfare,” everyone knows that welfare is degrading and deprives the recipient of the dignity of meaningful work. America doesn’t owe anyone a job, but Americans demand a country that has a job for everyone who wants to work.

Poverty of Spirit: Without your own purpose, without intrinsic hope for the future, and without meaningful opportunities to better your condition through work, your spirit would be low. The words of your preacher will eventually ring hollow if you see no one rising above the crowd to live their own life funded by the rewards of their own labor. This poverty of spirit leaves a void that’s often filled with drugs, sex, and violence. But America is a nation built on spirit. We should be ashamed and furious that any American feels the need to turn to vices.

Back to the Atlantic story:

The number of people living in high-poverty areas—defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold—[olympus_highlight color=“yellow”]nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, to 13.8 million from 7.2 million[/olympus_highlight].

How could we let this happen? Who cares. The real question is: How do we help the poor?

We help the poor by growing the economy, of course, but that’s not enough. People trapped in multi-generational poverty need help from people like you and me–even if we’ve never been poor. We can help them in four ways:

  1. Be open to the possibility that their poverty is not their fault. Too often conservatives blame poverty on the poor. While some poor people make terrible choices that hurt them and their families, most are simply copying the behaviors that seem to work for those around. When you’re struggling just to survive, what seems to work is very different from what works to actually get ahead. When a kid becomes a drug dealer, he sees it as a viable path to survival. When a girl of 13 has her first child, she’s seen that as a means of “growing up.” I’m not saying it’s not her fault; I’m saying she’s lived in a different world than you and me.
  2. Realize that people don’t change over night. Multi-generational poor cannot drive through Chesterfield and suddenly become an upper middle-class professional family. There are many habits and mindsets they must recognize, ponder, and choose to replace with new habits and mindsets. That takes time, and there will be setbacks.
  3. Accept that poor people are focused on survival, not flourishing. This breaks my heart, but it’s true. You and I get to work on flourishing quite a bit. Growing up in a poor neighborhood with serious crime and bad examples all around means you first have to work at just staying alive and staying fed. We can give poor people who want to escape that live respites from the stress of their everyday lives. But we cannot remove them from their situations overnight. That means, they might be slow to adopt new, positive habits and mindsets. But we have the luxury of time and patience. We need to remember that.
  4. Allow the government to do what it does. Telling poor people you’d like to rip out their government support only scares the crap out of them. They don’t see any alternative to the degrading government benefits they get. No one learns or grows when they’re frightened, and saying you’re going to remove the only financial support they know scares people. Instead, we have to build on their welfare, let them experience the benefits of work and the pride of earning their own way without the threat a little income from a job will rip a hole in their safety net. That safety net has been their friend and security for a long time. They will eventually outgrow it, but only if we don’t yell at them about cutting it up and throwing it in the trash.

Yesterday, I offered one small solution–one step–in fixing the problems the war on poverty created. It’s increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for single taxpayers without dependents. We might also consider raising the EITC for those with dependents.

I realize that raising the EITC costs money, and I know our national debt is already outrageous. But the EITC is an investment in human beings and a first step off the safety net. If my taxes are going to pay poor people, I’d rather pay working poor than idle poor. And I’d rather not expose the poor to job losses from a drastic increase in the minimum wage.