But there are other heavy burdens, notably the payroll tax. Heaviest of all are the indirect burdens — the regulations, taxes, and expenses inflicted on employers that inevitably are passed on, in some measure, to employees, and particularly to those employees without the in-demand skills that put them in a stronger negotiating position. While on paper our taxes and regulations are targeted precisely, the economic fact is that those burdens are borne collectively, with costs shifted throughout the economy. It should surprise no one that they fall with disproportionate weight upon low-wage workers. The Democrats have for generations ignored that fact, and pronounce themselves shocked that our highly redistributive system of taxes and benefits has done so little to alleviate poverty.
The flip side of making work more attractive is making dependency less attractive. The Clinton-Gingrich welfare-reform effort was one of the few unalloyed public-policy successes of recent years, and the Left has set about dismantling it, with work requirements weakened and enforcement undermined. The recent debate over the extension of unemployment benefits captures the competing worldview in miniature: Democrats are scandalized that Republicans resist the expansion of welfare benefits, and Republicans are, or at least should be, scandalized that so many Americans need them. What looks like compassion in the short term is in the long term a refusal to deal with the problem: in some cases an inability to find sustaining work, in others a refusal to do so.
Poverty is a difficult issue with few obvious remedies. And even such obvious remedies as we have are politically difficult. The most attractive of the low-hanging fruit before us is reform of our dysfunctional public-education system, particularly as it affects students in our dangerous and ineffective inner-city schools. But when it comes to education reform, Barack Obama stands in the schoolhouse door as pitilessly as George Wallace. Republicans, for their part, have shown a remarkable inability to view issues such as immigration reform, and especially an amnesty for illegals, through the eyes of low-income workers rather than those of the Chamber of Commerce. Whatever the cure for poverty is, it is not the importation of poor people.
The Left has made a mess of the issue, and while we should not let them forget that it is their mess, conservatives will, by necessity, be the ones who clean it up. Economic thinkers such as Thomas Sowell have been making the case for a conservative approach to poverty for years, and recently conservative leaders such as Ralph Reed have been making a praiseworthy effort to ensure that the problems of the poor are front and center in the minds of a sometimes too well-fed GOP. The campaign against poverty is not a war, and it is not the moral equivalent of war, but it is worth fighting.