Politics & Policy

The Abandoned Poor

They need jobs, not government largesse, and Republicans can offer real help.

Remember poverty? It was once a chief preoccupation of the Democratic party. Lyndon Johnson made war on it. An entire ecosystem of federal, state, and local programs has been created over the course of the past half-century to combat it, costing taxpayers more than $1 trillion annually.

Yet the Democratic party seems to have forgotten the poor. The proposal to increase the minimum wage by a few dollars is trifling compared with the vaunting ambitions of the War on Poverty. Sargent Shriver, LBJ’s poverty czar, predicted that welfare-state programs would eliminate poverty by 1976. Throughout the post–Great Society era, Democrats proclaimed that the persistence of poverty was a moral stain on the nation.

#ad#What happened to that spirit? Every other sentence out of the mouths of Barack Obama and other progressive Democrats seems to invoke the “middle class,” and when they’re not promising to help the middle class, they’re obsessing about how to humble the rich. In the past two weeks, the Left’s preoccupation with confiscating thy neighbor’s goods has been highlighted by two things: The reception of Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, and the response to rumors that Senator Elizabeth (“Occupy Wall Street”) Warren might run for president. Both have received the full secular saint treatment, reflecting the progressives’ almost mob-like eagerness to lay hands on more of the property of the rich. Not for the poor, mind you, but for the “middle class” (translation: themselves).

The great advantage of being a liberal/progressive in America is that you are always judged on your intentions (or stated intentions) and not on results. While the pundits are swooning for Piketty and Warren, may we have even a moment’s pause to consider how well Obama’s brand of progressivism has done for the poor and middle class?

Poverty has increased under Mr. Obama’s watch. It ticked up during the recession, which is to be expected and was obviously not a result of Obama’s policies. But after the recession ended, and after the first much-vaunted “recovery summer” (2010) and then the second (2011), poverty continued to climb. The poverty rate has now been stuck at 15 percent for three consecutive years. This is a 50-year high. Enrollment in the food-stamp program (SNAP) has increased by 39 percent.

So there are more Americans living in poverty under President Obama than under his predecessor. If he were a Republican, this reality would be widely acknowledged. It’s better to be a Democrat.

Now, how is the class to whom the president so frequently panders doing? Jeffrey Anderson of The Weekly Standard looked at Census Bureau data and found that typical American household income has not only dropped during Obama’s tenure, it has declined more since the end of the Great Recession than it did during the downturn. Real inflation-adjusted income for the median household fell 1.8 percent during the recession. It fell 4.4 percent during the recovery.

Democrats know only one song, and it goes: Let’s make more people dependent upon government. They’re crooning it vapidly now in anticipation of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy or a Piketty tax in which the treasures of the George Soroses and Warren Buffetts of the world (oh, sorry, my mistake; they’re actually drooling over the fortunes of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson) will be widely distributed.

But redistribution doesn’t bring prosperity. Look around you. Obama has raised taxes on the rich several times (some taxes are buried in Obamacare). We spend seven of every ten federal dollars on sending checks to the poor and the middle class. Under Obama, the disability rolls have exploded, removing people from the world of work. Labor-force participation rates have declined steeply, and while the administration has blamed Baby Boom retirements, the percentage of adults age 25–54 in the workforce has declined as well. More than twice as many people have joined the ranks of the disabled under SSDI as have gotten jobs since 2009. According to the 2012 Social Security trustees report, SSDI may be out of funds as early as 2015.

About 25 percent of the poor in America are working. Only about 2.9 percent work full time. Government largesse can keep people from destitution, but it cannot provide a ladder out of poverty. Only jobs can do that.

A Republican party alert to its own interests as well as those of the nation would pick up the cause of the poor that the Democrats have abandoned. Instead of a disability, welfare, or unemployment check, they should find a way to offer a job.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2014 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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