The crux of conservative thinking on poverty spending


Via John Fekner. Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan in South Bronx. AP/Photo Wide World Photos (c) 1980

Annie Lowrey had a nice piece in the New York Times Wednesday on how the lived experience of American poverty has changed since the 1960s and the War on Poverty. In short, the basic living standards for the poor have improved in the last 50 years, and this in large part due to federal programs and falling prices — with some caveats. Those programs have failed to keep up with an economy that is concentrating wealth and income gains away from the bottom, and while prices have fallen for some material goods many of the most crucial ones are still out of reach for those living in poverty.

The slightly longer version is that programs like Social Security, especially, have been wildly successful in reducing poverty. Overall, as Lowrey writes, in “1967, government programs reduced one major poverty rate by about 1 percentage point. In 2012, they reduced the rate by nearly 13 percentage points.” At the same time those policies have reduced poverty compared to the counter-factual of their absence, though, the poor have been getting smaller slices of the growing economic pie.

Likewise, the cost of consuming some goods and services have drastically fallen, increasing the living standards of everyone and shrinking the overall gap between what the poor and non-poor can consume. Prices on mass-consumed items like televisions, cell phones, computers, vehicles, clothing and appliances have all got much cheaper. Housing has gotten slightly less expensive, but not by much. However, more critical goods and services have actually gotten more expensive — sometimes much more. The cost of college is the easy winner here but that list also includes child care, health care, and to a smaller extent food. Again, this is in the face of a federal anti-poverty structure that has failed to keep up with an economy that has grown more unequal.

So that’s a broad overview of how poverty’s material conditions have changed in the last 50 years. The poor have a greater standard of living and greater access to (some) cheaper technology and services, but are falling further behind relative to everyone else, all the while “[p]rices are rising on the very things that are essential for climbing out of poverty.

Lowrey dutifully notes that both Democrats and Republicans have policies proposals for addressing some of these issues. The former would like to increase the standard of living for the poor and working class by providing either greater income (raising the minimum wage) or security (extending unemployment insurance, more affordable/greater health care coverage). The latter wants to further deregulate business sectors, lower taxes, and reform benefit programs to encourage the poor to work more. This should be a familiar story to anyone here.

Yet I thought this conservative response to government spending on the poor serves as a helpful reminder on what constitutes ‘success’ for the right on the continuing war on poverty:

“There’s just a whole lot more assistance per low-income person than has ever been,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That is propping up the living standards to a considerable degree,” he said, citing a number of statistics on housing, nutrition, and other categories.

Decades of economic growth, however, have been less successful in raising the incomes from work of many poor families, prompting a strong conservative critique this year that hundreds of billions of dollars in antipoverty programs have failed to make the poor less dependent on government.

“That’s the crux of the problem,” Mr. Rector added. “What sort of progress is that?”

Notice the submerged ideology here. What the government does, by “propping up the living standards” of the poor, is an aberration. Thus what Lowrey describes as the conservative measure for successful poverty spending is dead accurate: the point is not to ameliorate the shortcomings of the private market, because those are natural, but to make fewer people less dependent on public funding.

Yet because ‘the market’ is doing even less to raise folks up the only way to move that metric in the conservative’s preferred direction is to reform programs in such a way that fewer people in poverty benefit. That functionally amounts to just spending less, which is in fact exactly what they’ve been proposing in the last four budget cycles. If the “crux of the problem” with government spending on the poor were closer to the idea that too many people are poor, then you might think a little outside the box of deregulation and tax-slashing on the wealthy like every other year since Reagan. But if the problem really is that too many people are moochers, then of course the solution is to rein in poverty spending and incentivize the poor to work more jobs in the booming low-wage recovery.


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