Over at the Washington Post, Melinda Henneberger suggests poor and working-class Americans are the forgotten people of this year’s presidential election. In one sense, she’s quite correct. At least in rhetorical terms, much of this election does seem to be primarily all about the “middle class.”
That may be partly because one of the many attractive features of American life is that most people aspire to become economically better off and value upward social mobility (save perhaps in the academy where many a 55-year-old professor from a well-to-do background dresses like a 21-year-old hipster to prove their faux-proletariat/Occupy Wall Street credentials). It’s very likely that Governor Romney’s and President Obama’s pollsters know this and grasp that when most Americans hear the phrase “middle class,” they immediately relate it to themselves — whatever the objective facts about their economic standing in society.
But what’s generally missing from the discussion of poverty in the context of this presidential election — though Romney did obliquely reference it in the second debate — is acknowledgment that: (1) the economic causes of impoverishment are more subtle and less amenable to wealth redistribution than the Left is willing to concede; and (2), with a few exceptions, liberals are generally reluctant to acknowledge some of poverty’s non-economic causes, not least because it throws into relief some of the more destructive effects of their cultural agenda.
If poverty was simply a question of wealth redistribution, the sheer amount of dollars spent since the not-so-Great Society programs of the 1960s should have resolved the problem. In 2011, Peter Ferrara calculated that “total welfare spending [in 2008] . . . amounted to $16,800 per person in poverty, 4 times as much as the Census Bureau estimated was necessary to bring all of the poor up to the poverty level, eliminating all poverty in America. That would be $50,400 per poor family of three.”#more#
The effects in terms of reducing poverty have, however, been underwhelming. As Ferrara observes: “Poverty fell sharply after the Depression, before the War on Poverty, declining from 32% in 1950 to 22.4% in 1959 to 12.1% in 1969, soon after the War on Poverty programs became effective. Progress against poverty as measured by the poverty rate then abruptly stopped.” In short, America’s welfare state, which now easily accounts for the biggest outlays in the federal government’s annual budget, has proved inadequate at realizingone of its central goals.
Then there are the subtle corrosions of the poor’s economic position through misguided economic policies that often go unnoticed. In a recent Wall Street journal piece, Sean Fieler noted that the policy of low but persistent levels of inflation associated with “quantitative easing” (i.e., printing money) has only a short-term positive impact upon unemployment. In the long term, he pointed out, the subsequent rising prices have actually “eroded American workers’ standard of living.” Slowly devaluing the worth of money by, say, 2 percent each year effectively cancels out half of the benefit of a 4 percent wage-increase in real terms.
Likewise there are the ways in which protectionist policies — invariably advocated by unions often led by people who have done nothing else career-wise except be professional union officials — price American workers out of the international labor market, not to mention encourage blue-collar Americans to stay in industries that are rapidly losing their comparative advantage in the global economy. Obama himself candidly stated in the second debate that some of those jobs “aren’t coming back.” Protectionist policies merely encourage the illusion that they will.
But it’s when the non-economic causes of poverty are taken into account that the credibility of those who insist upon widespread redistribution and government programs as the key to poverty-alleviation really starts to fall apart. Figures ranging from the late Democratic senator from New York, Daniel Moynihan, to the rather more conservative Charles Murray, the late James Q. Wilson, and Michael Novak have underscored the cultural damage inflicted upon poorer Americans (especially non-white Americans) by the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline in marriage and church attendance rates, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, as well as the general undermining of the moral norms and virtues that once were part and parcel (even if they often were only paid lip-service) of wealthy, middle-class, and working-class American life. The fact that these trends parallel the expansion of welfare-spending has gone largely unnoticed on the left.
All of these institutions — marriage, intact two-parent (one man, one woman) families, and coherent religion and morality — have been under systematic assault by most modern liberals (though the roots go back much further to Rousseau, Marx, and the empirically-falsifiable anthropological nonsense peddled by the likes of Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey) in the name of “liberation” since the inglorious 1960s. But they are not the ones who have borne the social and economic costs. Instead it has been the less economically well-off — the poor — who have suffered from lefty intellectuals’ desire to free us from moral reality.
The social and cultural problems that often blight the lives of so many economically disadvantaged people generally can’t be fixed by government programs. They require long-term attention, often on a one-on-one basis, as well as a willingness to treat people as individual persons with particular challenges rather than just another statistic. Here it’s worth mentioning Arthur Brooks’s 2006 book, Who Really Cares? This demonstrated that it is generally self-described conservatives and those who actively practice a religious faith who invest their personal time and economic resources in helping their neighbors in need. Modern liberals apparently suffer from some serious generosity shortfalls, not to mention imagination.
As Princeton’s Robert P. George remarked in a recent speech that repays careful rereading: “The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage.” The comparative track record of the welfare state and the permissive society is appalling. That’s an insight the Left generally won’t acknowledge, but which conservatives and free marketers would do well to embrace in all its counter-cultural fullness.
— Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his soon-to-be released Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can avoid a European Future.