Remarks to the Heritage Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Forum
Nov 13 2013
It’s always great to join with the Heritage Foundation in any context. But being a part of this Anti-Poverty Forum is a true privilege. Members of my staff have been here all day, taking copious notes, and hopefully collecting all the business cards and white papers they can get their hands on.
It is of course a tragedy that we have to be here at all. Though the Bible says the poor will always be with us, it’s still hard to accept why, in a nation with a $15 trillion economy, the poor are still with us.
And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s famous “War on Poverty” speech, we all know the statistics. Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since the late 1960s, the poverty rate has hardly budged. And just last week, the Census Bureau reported that today, more than 49 million Americans still live below the poverty line.
Today, a boy born in the bottom 20% of our income scale has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult. According to the O.E.C.D., the United States is third from the bottom of advanced countries in terms of upward economic mobility.A recent study in Oregon found that the Medicaid program – which provides health insurance to the poor – produces basically no health improvements for its beneficiaries. A study last December on the Head Start program, issued by the Obama Administration itself, found that what few academic benefits three- and four-year olds do gain from the program all but disappear by end of the first grade.
We know that poor men and women are less likely to get married and stay married, that 30% of single mothers are living in poverty, and that their children are less likely to rise out of poverty themselves when they grow up.
We know that participation in civil society, volunteering, and religion are deteriorating in poor neighborhoods – compounding economic hardship with social isolation. And we know these trends cut across boundaries of race, ethnicity, and geography.
All of this might lead some to the depressing conclusion that – 50 years after Johnson’s speech - America’s war on poverty has failed. But the evidence proves nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I believe the American people are poised to launch a new, bold, and heroic offensive in the war on poverty… if a renewed conservative movement has the courage to lead it.
First, let’s be clear about one thing. The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For more than two hundred years, the United States – through trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually remember when their own families were poor.
Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.
We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and information and opportunity. What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth - to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.
In a free market economy and voluntary civil society, no matter your career or your cause, your success depends on your service. The only way to get ahead is to help others do the same. The only way to look out for yourself is to look out for your neighbors.
Together, these twin networks of service-based success enabled millions of ordinary Americans to make our economy very wealthy and our society truly rich… long before Lyndon Johnson tried to do better by growing and centralizing government authority. These human – and humane – networks empowered Americans, unlike any people on earth or in history, to protect not just themselves but each other from both material want and social isolation.
Now, progressive ideologues reject all this. They do not trust individuals to join together voluntarily and organically to improve each other’s lives and meet common challenges. As President Obama said in his second inaugural:
“No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
But by “together,” of course, he meant only “government.”
This discredited mindset – which insists collective action can only mean state action - is itself a kind of poverty. It rejects social solidarity in favor of political coercion, and voluntary communities for professional community organizers. It distrusts and denies the bonds of cooperation and service that represent the highest expression of our dignity.
Look at any thriving marriage, friendship, church, charity, Little League, historical society, theater company, PTA, neighborhood or business. What makes America exceptional – and life worth living - is not simply individual freedom, but the heroic, empowering communities that free individuals form.
Free enterprise and civil society operate in the natural human space - between the isolated individual and the impersonal state - where we live, and love, and flourish… where everyone can earn a good living and build a good life… where the strong and the vulnerable alike can pursue their happiness, and find it… together.
In America, government did not invade or replace that space. Government protected and expanded it. That is how we proved to the world that freedom doesn’t mean “you’re on your own.” Freedom means “we’re all in this together.” The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation “of plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.”
Organic communities formed within the free market and civil society’s networks of opportunity are not threats that poor families need more protection from. They are blessings that poor families need more access to.
And that’s what America was all about. Since the dawn of time, rich and powerful men, and friends of the king, always had access to opportunity. What made America different is that here, everyone did, and government’s job was to make sure of it.
This is an important point, for progressives to learn and conservatives to remember: the constitutionally limited but indispensable role that government played in America’s original war on poverty. That role was best expressed by a president who understood poverty better than most.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the “leading object” of American government was:
“to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
In a single sentence, Lincoln explains precisely what poverty is, and what government ought to do about it. As Lincoln knew first hand, true poverty was not for most people an absence of money, but an absence of opportunity – a lack of access to those social and economic networks where human opportunities are created. Then, as now, people were not isolated because they were poor – they were poor mostly because they were isolated.
And so, in America’s original war on poverty, government did not give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other people.
In Lincoln’s era – even during a cataclysmic war that was itself a struggle for human freedom and opportunity – that meant dredging rivers, building canals and cutting roads. It meant the Homestead Act and land-grant universities. These public goods weren’t designed to make poverty more tolerable – but to make it more temporary. They reduced the time it took to get products to market, increased access to banks and land, and increased the speed at which knowledge could be developed and shared.
Poor farmers and trappers in Lincoln’s Mid-West were no worse at their trades than their more affluent counterparts back east. They just didn’t enjoy the same access to networks of human, social, and economic capital.
In the same way, poor children today do not lack the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to flourish in our market economy and civil society. But they absolutely lack the same access to the networks of human opportunity where that knowledge and those skills are acquired.
Properly considered, then, the war on poverty is not so much about lifting people up. It’s about bringing people in. And so the challenge to conservatives today is to rethink the war on poverty along these lines, to bring into our economy and society the individuals, families, and communities that have for five decades been unfairly locked out.
Nineteen-sixty-four wasn’t the year Americans started fighting poverty; it was the year we started losing that fight. To start winning again, conservatives are going to have to lead the way - not simply by offering criticism, but alternatives. Our job is to identify the obstructions that impede Americans’ access to our market economy and civil society and clear them. And if we’re looking for impediments to mobility and opportunity, we’ve certainly come to the right place!
Today, many of those obstructions are themselves government policies. These policies unintentionally discourage almost every positive step underprivileged families can take toward social mobility and economic security.
Today’s government-centric system penalizes marriage, which a mountain of evidence now shows is the single most empowering social and economic opportunity there is. It also penalizes low-income workers for making more money by drastically reducing benefits at arbitrary points along the income-scale. Because of these poverty traps, single mothers near the poverty line, for instance, can face effective marginal tax rates of 80 or even 90 percent.
Thus, in poor communities, government dependence often atrophies community interdependence, fraying the bonds between moms and dads and neighbors and friends and pastors and teachers, old and young, native and immigrant.
Meanwhile, education policies leave low-income parents and children trapped in failing schools. Policies ranging from welfare to health care to criminal justice are only exacerbating the explosion of fatherlessness plaguing lower-income communities.
And so conservatives need a new, comprehensive anti-poverty agenda that not only corrects – but transcends – existing policies.
Anyone looking for ideas would do well to visit my home state of Utah, where a combination of smart, efficient government, a growing, prosperous economy, an active and faithful civil society, and perhaps the most successful private welfare system in the world, have made Salt Lake the most upwardly mobile region in the entire country.
But first and foremost, we should at least pledge to do no more harm.
There is no good reason the federal government should maintain 79 separate means-tested programs. There is no good reason why almost none of these programs feature the kind of work-requirements that helped transition millions of Americans into jobs after the 1996 reform. And there is no good reason federal policy should reward states for higher spending rather than improved results. And so one of our first priorities should be to simply get existing federal programs under control. And I am working with the Heritage Foundation and several colleagues on legislation to do just that.
Second, just as we cannot spend our way out of poverty, we cannot really cut our way out, either. We need to fundamentally fix the system so that every dollar we do spend actually connects underprivileged families to new opportunities in the free market and civil society.
One way to do this would be to block-grant Medicaid funds to the states, eliminating the federal bureaucracy that today stands between underprivileged families and their doctors. We could do the same thing with the Head Start program, which spends $8.1 billion every year through a federal bureaucracy without yielding any lasting educational benefits.
The data doesn’t tell us that pre-K education and health insurance for poor families are bad – just that the federal government does a lousy job of providing them. So instead, let’s allow states to implement real reforms that give low-income families access to educational and health opportunities somewhere besides the federal bureaucracy.
In Utah, for instance, our legislature has created a special task force to study the prospects of “charity care” – affordable medical services for poor families provided not by government but by individuals, businesses, non-profit groups, and local communities. That model might not work in every state – but every state should have the freedom to solve problems their own way, according to their own values and priorities.
We need similar reforms to open up our elementary and secondary schools – giving underprivileged parents and children access to the same opportunities that wealthy Americans take for granted. We need to expand access to higher education, to reform our accreditation system to allow federal aid to follow students to new and diverse options: customized courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus, even professional training and apprenticeships.
Another area ripe for reform is the federal government’s criminal justice and prison system. The simple fact is that in America today, we put too many people in prison for too long, with too little benefit to our society. If inmates are violent and threats to our communities, then we have a moral responsibility to keep them locked up. If they are not violent and pose no threat, however, if they have reformed and are ready to return to their families and communities, we have just as much moral duty to get them re-integrated into our nation’s networks of social and economic mobility.
I’m working on bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing and incarceration policies, following the transformative example of innovative states. If we are serious about access to opportunity for all, then we have to put “rehabilitation” back into the vocabulary of the federal prison system.
There is so much more to do – on issues ranging from housing to adoption to labor to mental health.
And of course, the best thing we can do to help the unemployed find jobs, and low-income workers find higher-income work is to finally get our economy growing again. Reforms to our tax, regulatory, energy, and transportation systems that spur private investment and job creation can do more for upward mobility than anything else in government’s power.
And certainly more than any of the divisive, special-interest pandering that the Washington establishments of both parties cynically substitute for serious debate and reform.
Though many Republicans in Congress are building a serious anti-poverty agenda the right way – you’ll hear from my friends Paul Ryan and Jim Jordan and others today – others are tempted by what they see as an easier way. Too many in our party today seem to have convinced themselves that electoral success depends on adopting the Left’s strategy of dividing the American people: slice them up into superficial identity groups, and assume that struggling African-Americans, struggling Latinos, struggling Asian-Americans, struggling whites, struggling single parents, struggling unskilled workers, struggling young people, struggling immigrants, and struggling blue collar workers all want different things.
But don’t they all really want the same thing? To not be struggling?
Special-interest policymaking that pits Americans against each other, is the problem, not the solution. The things that truly fight poverty – economic growth, education, innovation, voluntary exchange – create opportunities for everyone.
I have no idea if empowering poor families – regardless of what they look like – to overcome poverty through the cooperative communities of the market economy and civil society will help the Republican Party. But I do know it will help the American people – which is what the Republican Party is supposed to be for.
And finally, we simply must begin to address what we might call America’s “other marriage debate.” It is uncomfortable to talk about, and almost impossible to legislate. But the fact is, the problem of poverty in America is directly linked to family breakdown and the erosion of marriage among low-income families and communities. Implicit marriage penalties in our tax code and welfare programs surely need legislative remedies. But what we’re really talking about is a question of culture, not policy incentives.
For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have employed terms like “family values” and “marriage” primarily as partisan wedges, cudgels to attack ideological opponents. This fact did not create America’s marriage crisis – but it hasn’t helped, either.
And now, seemingly every week, scholars are producing more evidence about the social and economic consequences of this essentially moral question. We now have scientific consensus supporting what were once thought to be merely traditions and intuitions. According to one study, the taxpayer costs of family fragmentation are more than $100 billion per year – a staggering sum that nonetheless pales in comparison to the social and human costs, borne disproportionately by innocent children.
Yet, this data has arrived at a moment when the controversies about same-sex marriage tend to overwhelm any political discussion of the institution. It could be said that the political sensitivity of marriage today might be a good reason not to bring it up at all. But I think the data makes this the perfect time to begin this debate precisely because it will require such sensitivity on all sides. In an earlier era, our assumptions and vocabulary might have expressed judgment instead of compassion, and closed doors instead of opening them.
Though the foundational importance of family has not changed – times and attitudes have. Today, no serious secularist thinks the institution of marriage is intrinsically oppressive. And no serious traditionalist thinks of the children of single mothers as “illegitimate.”
Even if we remove morality and religion from the question entirely, a stable, intact family remains the greatest incubator of economic opportunity and multiplier of human and social capital in this world. To say that children tend to do best when raised by their married mom and dad is not a political opinion – it is a demonstrable fact. Saying so does not demean or degrade other family structures. And fear of facts does not make us sensitive – it leaves us ignorant.
Public policy need not incentivize people to get married – for most people, life already does. What public policy – and even more importantly, the people who make and influence public policy – must do is to finally accept and embrace and celebrate that fact.
And then see what we can do – together - to help. Sincerely doing so could do more to win the war on poverty than anything else discussed at this conference today.
I want to close with a story from the history of my church and my state.
In October 1856, two groups of handcart pioneers on their way to Utah were stuck on the plains of Wyoming: short of provisions, with winter coming, the ground so hard they could not dig graves for those who expired in the cold.
In what is now Salt Lake City, Brigham Young stood to open a general conference of the church, where the citizens anxiously waited to hear the inspiring speeches and powerful sermons common to such gatherings.
Instead, he began by reading the report sent to Salt Lake by the leaders of the handcart groups. It told of:
“between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn by drawing handcarts through the snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost.”
Brigham Young then called the people to action, with this simple message: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts … and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them.”
He said he would not wait until tomorrow or the next day. He called for forty young men, sixty-five teams of mules or horses, and wagons loaded with twenty-four thousand pounds of flour to leave immediately to rescue those pioneers in the wilderness.
“I will tell you all,” Young said, “that your faith… and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you… unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching.... Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
The rescue party quickly assembled and headed East.
Days later, they reached the pioneers – with food and blankets and hope. The survivors were then carried, some literally on the backs of their rescuers, to Salt Lake – home at last, where they belonged.
Today, millions more of our neighbors are still out on the plains. They are not some government’s brothers and sisters – they are ours.
And the time has come to do something about it. As conservatives, as Americans, and as human beings, we have it in our power – individually, together, and where necessary through government… to bring them in:
- to bring them into our free enterprise economy to earn a good living,
- to bring them into our voluntary civil society to build a good life,
- and to welcome them and their children home to an America that leaves no one behind.
Thank you, and God bless.