Did we win the war?

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. — Mark Twain

This year is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (WOP). In January 1964, during his State of the Union speech, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty”. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” In August of that year, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which stated that it was the policy of the United States to eliminate poverty. “The United States can achieve its full economic and social potential as a nation only if every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities and to participate in the workings of our society.”

Even before the WOP, poverty rates were falling steadily. From 1940 to 1960 the poverty rate for black families dropped from 87% to 47%, then in the 60s it dropped another 17%. In 1950 the overall poverty rate was 30%. By 1956 that had dropped to 25%. By the time of LBJ’s announcement the rate had dropped to 19%.

A few years after the WOP legislation was passed, poverty dropped to 12%. Supporters cheered that the law was working, but how much of that drop was due to the new law and how much was a continuation of a long-term trend going back to the 1940s and 50s?

Since then, now amounting to some 45 years, the poverty rate has bounced up and down between 12% and 15%. The average for the last two decades is higher than when LBJ left office. For the first time in about 50 years, the poverty rate is 15% for three years in a row. A record high 50 million Americans live in poverty. 

We can do better. We should do better.

What we have been doing for most of 50 years has not worked. The War on Poverty has not achieved its stated goals: it has not cured, prevented, or eliminated poverty. The goals were laudable but we should judge the law by its results, not its goals. The result after 50 years is an increase in poverty, not a decrease. People are trapped in poverty, not freed from it.

LBJ’s goal was to help people become prosperous and self-sufficient. Instead, people have become dependent on government, surviving from one benefit check to the next. The Act stated as a goal that “every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities.” 50 million Americans are not contributing; the programs’ perverse incentives punish people who try to work.

Some say the WOP has been a success as measured by the great number of people receiving assistance. Wouldn’t it be better – better for poor people themselves – to measure success by the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty and no longer need assistance?

We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For most of 50 years we have been doing the same thing year after year and the result has been to trap more and more people in poverty.

The myriad of welfare programs reward people for being poor and penalize those who try to move out of poverty and up the income ladder. Someone who works harder, takes a second job, learns more skills, might earn $10,000 more but lose $15,000 of benefits. Hence, many say “I can’t afford to take that job. I’d lose my benefits!” With perverse incentives like these, it is no wonder that we have more people in poverty and fewer people making the effort to better themselves.

New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof recognized the problem: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”

As a caring society we want to help the vulnerable. But do we want to trap them into a lifetime of dependency on government, where they are punished for trying to better themselves? Is it good for society to have millions of people unable to contribute their skills and energy? Is it good for the recipients themselves to live in poverty their entire lives with no hope of ever becoming self-sufficient and moving upward? 

For Kristof, “a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.”

Our social safety net all too often acts as a trap net. It traps people at the edge of poverty and prevents them from moving up the ladder of success. A true safety net is rarely used. People create opportunities to reach their work site above the safety net. In the unlucky event that they fall to the net, they climb back up and continue their work.

Let’s think more about creating ladders or stairways or ramps to help people escape poverty and reach for their dreams and less about nets that support them and trap them at the edge of poverty with no hope of rising higher.

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What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” — Mark Twain

The great French economist Frederic Bastiat observed that “In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

The same is true in the sphere of public policy. The bad economist or the thoughtless politician (but I repeat myself) sees only the direct effect of a law; he doesn’t foresee the indirect effects. In many cases the politician may consider only the short-term effects that might help him win the next election; he may not consider at all the long-term effects.

Bastiat noted that “it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa.” So when a politician urges a great new solution to some problem – or typically, the same old ineffective solution to a problem – the long-term result very often is more harm than good.

One such example was alcohol Prohibition almost 100 years ago. The problem of alcohol may have been bad, but Prohibition made the problem much worse, to the point that Prohibition was later repealed. Another example was a luxury tax on yachts to “soak the rich”. Even a mediocre economist or a slightly thoughtful politician could have foreseen the disaster it turned out to be. The tax collected virtually nothing from the rich but did send many blue collar boat builders to the unemployment line. Two years later Congress repealed the law.

With the greatest intentions of reducing poverty, politicians have enacted policies that, in the short-term, help people survive one month until the next government check, but the unseen long-term effect is to trap people in poverty, sometimes for generations. If we truly care about helping people – and I think most of us do – then wouldn’t it be better to find long-term solutions that help people escape poverty?

As long ago as the 1980s, better economists and more thoughtful politicians saw the indirect effects of the welfare system – it “fostered a permanent underclass dependent on government handouts.” In 1996, a Republican Congress and Democrat President Clinton passed welfare reform with the goal of reducing the dependency trap and helping people escape poverty. Ten years later, The New Republic, a liberal magazine, looked back and editorialized that the reform “worked much as its designers had hoped [foreseen].” Since then, less thoughtful politicians seeing only the easily visible effects of welfare, and not seeing the long-term consequences, have undone most of the successful reform.

Our disability system likewise helps disabled people survive month-to-month but traps them in poverty. Wouldn’t it be better to find long-term solutions, using some amazing modern technology to help them overcome their disabilities, become productive, and no longer trapped in poverty?

Some short-sighted politicians want to extend the length of unemployment benefits beyond 26 months, but the long-term effect can be permanent unemployment. Studies have found that someone unemployed for more than six months has very little chance of ever getting a job.

Other bad economists and thoughtless politicians suggest raising the minimum wage. The immediate effect would be to slightly raise the pay for a small number of people – but cause others to lose their jobs. The long-term consequence would be to destroy many more entry-level jobs, making it harder and harder for teenagers to enter the work force.

When was the last time you saw a full-service gas station? That used to be a good first job for many young kids. Washing dishes was another good first job. Kids learned the self-discipline of showing up on time every time. While on the job they often picked up skills from the auto mechanics or cooks around them. But as the minimum wage rose, machines replaced those jobs. If it continues to rise, we will see machines taking orders for fast food, flipping burgers, and delivering the goods. The long-term effect of raising the minimum wage is disastrous for millions of young people.

Some politicians saw ObamaCare as a good idea; they did not foresee the terrible consequences. Today, some people think we will see good effects if we adopt the ObamaCare expansion of Medicaid. Not only do they fail to see the indirect, long-term terrible effects, they don’t even see the bad effects that have already occurred elsewhere. To put it simply, Medicaid is an inefficient, incredibly expensive program that provides even worse health outcomes than for people who are uninsured. Expanding it would cost even more than now predicted and would lead to much higher taxes.

To achieve better results – better economy, more good jobs, higher pay, less poverty, lower cost health care – we need to see not just the immediate effects of a policy, but to foresee the long-term effects.

Medicaid is a cruel program

“If we wish to be compassionate with our fellow man, we must learn to engage in dispassionate analysis. In other Walter E. Williams

Would you believe that many politicians over-promise and under-deliver? They promise you that a new law will fix some terrible problem, but usually it does not fix the problem, and often it makes the problem worse.

Too many politicians look only at the stated goals of a program. They believe so much in the goals that they refuse to believe any harm could result. They don’t look beneath the surface for possible unintended consequences. Even when other people do find bad side-effects in the bill, the true believers ignore the potential problems.

Thus is the case with expanded Medicaid. The same politicians who thought ObamaCare was a good idea and promised us that “If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance”, those same politicians now tell us that expanding Medicaid is a good idea.

Sadly, Medicaid is a cruel program that hurts the very people it’s meant to serve. One commentator wrote: “Imagine a government-run health care program in which medical access is severely limited, that is racked by uncontrollably rising costs, and that in many instances results in demonstrably worse health outcomes than having no insurance at all. Such a program isn’t a mere hypothetical; it already exists, and it’s called Medicaid.”

More and more doctors are refusing to accept Medicaid because the system doesn’t pay enough to cover their expenses. Would-be patients spend hours on the phone trying to find someone willing to treat them. If they do succeed in finding a doctor, the appointment is, on average, three weeks later than someone with private insurance.

And it gets worse…, multiple studies have shown that Medicaid patients are more likely to die from surgery than privately insured patients and sometimes even more likely to die than uninsured patients. A Univ. of Pennsylvania study of colon cancer found that the mortality rate for Medicaid patients was 27% higher than for uninsured patients. A Florida study found that Medicaid patients were more likely than uninsured patients to have late-stage prostate cancer, breast cancer, or melanoma.

On broader measures of health, the Oregon Medicaid health experiment found no significant difference between Medicaid patients and uninsured patients in objectively measured physical health outcomes. Put simply, Medicaid did not make patients any healthier, though it did make them feel more financially secure.

Expanded Medicaid has been tried and has failed. The state of Maine expanded their Medicaid program ten years ago. Every predicted benefit failed. Politicians said it would reduce the number of uninsured. Wrong. Politicians said it would reduce emergency room visits. Wrong. Politicians said it would relieve uncompensated care. Wrong. The only significant change was that thousands of Mainers switched from private insurance to Medicaid.

There was one absurd result from Maine’s Medicaid expansion: Since the eligibility rules differ for expanded Medicaid and regular Medicaid, 10,000 able-bodied, childless adults received benefits while 3,000 elderly and disabled were put on a waiting list.

A pernicious aspect of Medicaid is that it traps people on the edge of poverty. The eligibility rules make it very difficult for someone to escape poverty and move up the ladder of success. A young person entering the workforce, earning $14,856 gets free health care. But if he or she earns just one dollar more, then that same young person not only loses the free coverage, but becomes obligated to purchase coverage or else face a penalty. This is a terrible incentive that encourages people to stay poor.

Isn’t it a good thing to learn more skills, get a better job, work more overtime, earn more money, save toward the future? Medicaid and similar entitlement programs punish people who try to better themselves and become self-sufficient, not dependent on government. Why should we encourage people to be involved in such a terrible system?

Proponents of expanded Medicaid rarely, if ever, discuss the adverse health outcomes for people on Medicaid. They never talk about the perverse incentives that can keep someone trapped in near-poverty forever.

What proponents mostly talk about is getting “free” money from the federal government. It is as if the poor are mere pawns for collecting more money. But does anyone really believe that the money is “free”? The federal government is running gigantic deficits. It has borrowed trillions and trillions of dollars. Our children, grandchildren, and their grandchildren will be stuck paying off this debt.

And the money isn’t free even in the short term. The feds talk about paying 100% of the cost for two years, but can we really believe that promise? And the federal budget negotiators are already talking about reducing the 100% promise because the costs keep going higher and higher and higher.

Many opponents of expanding Medicaid worry that the ever-increasing costs to NH taxpayers will lead us inevitably toward a sales or income tax.

The ObamaCare Medicaid expansion is bad for the people it claims to help, bad for the taxpayers, and bad for the future of New Hampshire. We should fix the broken system, not expand it.

Rethinking the War on Poverty

Some time back there was poll that described two options without using party labels. By a 2:1 margin people preferred the option that happened to be the Republican position. But then the pollsters asked the very same questions but identified which were the Democrat positions and which were the Republican positions. The result was a slight preference for the Democrat position.

To put it simply, voters prefer Republican positions, but don’t like the Republican label.

I am going to try a similar experiment here. Below are extracts from an interesting article about the War on Poverty. Decide whether you like the ideas without knowing who wrote it.

Just over 50 years ago, LBJ announced a War on Poverty.

The world has changed profoundly in the half-century since Johnson declared a war on poverty. In that time, as Peter Ferrara points out, the welfare bureaucracy has spent more than $16 trillion on means-tested entitlements. For each American living in poverty, we now spend $17,000 annually on these programs. And after 50 years of this strategy, there are still nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty today, and President Obama calls “inequality” is “the defining issue of our time.” The war, he says, is “far from over.”

He’s right: 50 years in, we’re still far from winning the war on poverty. But what does he–what does the left–propose to turn the tide? A small hike in the minimum wage, (when only about one third of one percent of Americans lives under the poverty line earning minimum wage). They want some higher taxes on the rich, a few new bureaucracies at most. In other words, the same ideas we’ve been trying for the last 50 years–programs whose most notable achievement is trapping millions of Americans in dependency.

The best response to these proposals may be a half century old itself: Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech, which he, too, delivered in 1964. “Do they honestly expect us to believe,” he asked, “that if we add 1 billion dollars to the 45 billion we’re spending, one more program to the 30-odd we have—and remember, this new program doesn’t replace any, it just duplicates existing programs—do they believe that poverty is suddenly going to disappear by magic?”It didn’t. And none of the same old, timid ideas we’re hearing from the left to mark this anniversary will do that either, of course.

We owe it to the least well-off Americans to develop a completely new approach to the war on poverty. Instead of recycling bureaucratic proposals from the era of black and white television, it’s time to rethink fundamentally how it is possible to help the poor in this very different world.

Great article by Rand Paul

One of Rand Paul’s strengths is that he connects well with his audiences. This article is addressed to college students but has a good message for all of us.

The federal government now attempts to micromanage American life at practically every level.

The government tells you what kind of lightbulbs you can buy, what kind of toilet can be in your home, how much water can come out of your showerhead. Privacy is seemingly an antiquated notion, with government snoops able to access third-party records, such as phone records, e-mails, financial records, and pretty much any other personal information they want, without a judge’s warrant.
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America has drifted away from the constitutional principles of limited government, separation of powers, and individual liberty.
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We need to do a better job of communicating why big government is the problem—why it is bad for the economy, freedom, and a restrained, yet strong, foreign policy.
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conservative solutions are tangible too. We’re not just saying no to more government. Our proposals will lead the way to more prosperity, more stable families, political decisions made at the local level, a dollar that holds up in a global marketplace, an education system that puts students and parents first, a vibrant culture supported by religious institutions, and opportunities for young people like you to grow and lead America into a renewed age of freedom.
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Our political opponents and the media like to portray conservatives as unconcerned about the poor, senior citizens, and minorities. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we need to do a better job of communicating the promise of conservatism, not simply the failures of liberalism. We advocate not for special privileges for “the rich” but rather for a flourishing economy that lifts everyone up, creating millions of jobs and lessening the burden of taxes and government regulation.

We need to shout to anyone who will listen, “More freedom and less government means more jobs, more wealth, and a better life for everyone.” Despite the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent on bailouts and “stimulus” plans over the past several years, the economy hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.

One in six Americans lives in poverty, more than at any other time in the past several decades. This is unacceptable.
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Decentralization of power is the best policy. Government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local. By decentralizing government, we strengthen communities, allowing people to depend on and care for one another, rather than on some distant, incompetent bureaucracy masquerading as defender of the common good. This is a message we need to do a better job communicating.

Read the whole thing.

We are a caring and generous society

“The history of recent decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.” — Thomas Sowell

According to an old story, a small town in Italy was having a problem with vipers. So the town council established a “viper bounty” to pay people for bringing in dead vipers. The result was that people started breeding vipers in their basements.

This illustrates one of the basic laws of economics: People respond to incentives. They do more of something when the reward increases; they do less of something when the penalty or cost increases.

Much of our public policy suffers from a failure to understand the basics of human behavior. Politicians perceive a problem, rush to pass a law that sounds good, pat themselves on the back, then go on to the next problem. They rarely look back to examine whether their “solution” actually fixed the problem or made it worse. If the program doesn’t work, their answer always is that it needs more money. They never admit that they were wrong.

Consider our many programs to help the poor and vulnerable. We are a caring and generous society. We donate hundreds of billions of dollars and countless millions of hours of our time to helping others. Caring for the vulnerable attracts almost universal support. But good intentions don’t automatically produce good policies.

Shouldn’t the goal of our anti-poverty programs be to help people move up out of poverty? Most if not all of the programs don’t even try to reduce poverty. Instead, they simply hand out money so the poor will be a little less destitute. Those unfortunate people remain in or near poverty, dependent on government sometimes for their entire lives – and their children’s lives.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “They want to give you a line where you can wait for a handout… I want to offer you a ladder so you can reach for your dreams.” Democrats measure success by how many people receive assistance. Republicans measure success by how many people no longer need assistance.

The myriad of welfare programs reward people for being poor and penalize those who try to move out of poverty and up the income ladder. Someone who works harder, takes a second job, learns more skills, might earn $10,000 more but lose $15,000 of benefits. Hence, many say “I can’t afford to take that job. I’d lose my benefits!” With perverse incentives like these it is no wonder that we have more people in poverty and fewer people making the effort to better themselves.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recognized the problem: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”

Democrats like to claim that they are for the poor, that Republicans are for the rich. The truth is that we Republicans are for all people to have the opportunity to become rich. The Democrats are for policies that keep people poor. If they really cared for the poor, they would fix a system that traps people in poverty. They would reward, not penalize, people who try to better themselves and escape poverty.

Bad policies are condemning people to lifelong poverty, trapping them there, and killing all hope of a better life.

Three simple rules will keep most people out of poverty: “finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” Follow all three rules and you have just a 2% chance of falling into poverty. Break all three rules and your chance of winding up in poverty is 76%. Tragically, government policies create incentives to break all three rules.

Welfare programs pay more to a teenage girl who has children, and pay less if she gets married, thus violating the third rule. ObamaCare provides a terrible incentive for businesses to limit employees to part-time work. This year 96% of all new jobs are part-time jobs, making it very hard to follow the second rule.

But the worst incentive of all is the government school system in too many parts of the country. In the inner cities the school systems are so bad that half the children drop out before they graduate and half those who do graduate are functionally illiterate. They will never get a decent job or a shot at the American dream.

The politicians and even the teachers know that the schools are terrible. That is why they send their own kids to private or parochial schools. Parents cry out for voucher programs that would let them send their kids to the same good schools that the politicians and teachers use for their kids. But the politicians and teachers care more about teachers’ jobs than they care about the kids whose lives they are destroying.

Did I mention which party runs all of these cities, has held the mayoralties, the city councils, the school boards for more than fifty years? Democrats run the welfare and school systems; they have created the policies that ruin the lives of the recipients of their handouts. And these are the people who say they care for the poor. They like the poor so much that they want more of them.

The Economy Has Tanked Under Obama

Some facts about the economy since Obama became President:

  • Seven out of every eight jobs that have been “created” in the U.S. economy have been part-time jobs.
  • The number of full-time workers in the United States is still nearly 6 million below the old record that was set back in 2007.
  • The number of Americans “not in the labor force” soared by an astounding 8,332,000.  That far exceeds any previous four year total.
  • The poverty rate has shot up to 16.1 percent.  That is actually higher than when the War on Poverty began in 1965.