A Right-of-Center Anti-Poverty Program

It is time for conservatives and libertarians to come out with a program to fight poverty.

Government programs like the War on Poverty and the Great Society had their chance to end poverty in our time. They failed. The increasing expansion of government did nothing to lift Americans out of the clutches of poverty, and may instead have exacerbated the persistence of poverty. For far too long, America has indulged those who have promised that just one more antipoverty program will be enough to turn the tide and lift the working poor into a new era of prosperity. A new direction is needed.

This new direction will use the wisdom of free markets and capitalism to fight poverty instead of relying on outdated and clumsy government tools to assist the working poor. Government will only have a role in the struggle insofar as it can work to reduce the tax burden on the poor and as it can stay out of the way of private market innovations that will do more to help the poor than the Great Society and the War on Poverty ever could. To be sure, many of the following proposals will sound familiar to those on the Right who have been touting them for some time now. But unfortunately, they have not found a wider audience. That has to change.

We can start a new and more successful antipoverty program by making the minimum wage take a backseat to the Earned Income Tax Credit. The minimum wage has been touted as the ne plus ultra of antipoverty programs. And why not? Who could be against raising the wages of the working poor, after all?

The problem, as I have written before, is that the minimum wage is just another subsidy program and an ineffective one at that. The number of workers making the minimum wage is quite small, meaning that any beneficial effects of the minimum wage are confined to a tiny portion of the population. Maybe that’s the reason why even public proponents of the minimum wage appear to be unwilling to extend its supposedly beneficial effects.

Is there a better way? Yes there is. It’s called the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC has a great many advantages over the minimum wage, among them being the fact that it is “now lifting 4.6 million people in working families out of poverty, including 2.4 million children.” Indeed, the EITC is responsible for having lifted “substantially more children out of poverty than any other government program or category of programs.” And the EITC has accomplished all of this while at the same time being one of the slowest growing entitlement programs in American history.

Not a bad record, that. Maybe it’s high time we substitute the EITC for minimum wage increases as the most effective way to fight poverty. That is, if we are serious about fighting poverty instead of merely being serious about appearing to want to fight poverty.

We can also stop demonizing companies that help alleviate poverty. I have observed in the past that “As a given corporation grows more successful and the size of said corporation grows in a manner roughly commensurate with the degree of success enjoyed by the corporation, the tendency of others to term the corporation an evil entity — whether explicitly or implicitly — approaches one.” My example was originally meant for Google but it applies most powerfully to Wal-Mart.

Never mind the fact that Wal-Mart is a crucial ally for the working poor in making ends meet. Never mind that Wal-Mart attracts far more job candidates than it can possibly hire — an amazing feat for a company that supposedly treats its workers like dirt. And never mind the many ways in which Wal-Mart helped alleviate the suffering of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a record that stands in stark contrast to that of the government. Apparently, none of these good works — each of which demonstrates vividly the power of private enterprise to do more good more efficiently than government ever could — are enough to prevent Wal-Mart from being made out to be a corporate villain of the most malicious kind. Be sure to keep an eye on the upcoming Democratic Presidential primaries and see if you can catch people like John Edwards or Barack Obama saying nice things about Wal-Mart. It will be a tough task; Edwards and Obama are going to move heaven and earth to court the ideologues in their party by bashing their favorite corporate targets. Instead of arguing that we ought to harness the power of private enterprise to help improve the lives of the poor, those left-wing ideologues content themselves with calling for yet more government intervention and the promulgation of still more government programs to strike a blow against poverty.

Why continue government programs that have failed?

Those who want to make poverty an anachronism realize that we have no time to waste and that we must begin to implement new ideas in the battle to lift up the lives of the working poor. Poverty, on the other hand, counts Time as an ally. The greatest gift the forces of poverty can be afforded is if we allow our longstanding policy prejudices to blind us to the need to take new and innovative measures in fighting for the working poor. Will we give poverty the gift of our continuing stubbornness? Or will we reserve our gifts for those who seek to escape poverty and achieve a better life for themselves?