An interesting opinion piece over at Reason.com related to government’s long war against poverty caught my attention. Written by Steve Greenhut, the article mainly focuses on California’s effort to eradicate poverty through government programs. But for those skeptical of the Great Society type programs that started in the 1960s, despite spending trillions upon trillions, they know the government has failed to eradicate poverty. On top of that, the federal government has simultaneously trapped millions in the vicious cycle of dependency.
From the piece in Reason:
California has the nation’s most-generous social-welfare programs. It is the most progressive state in America politically and has been for years. There are few achievable left-of-center policies that haven’t been tried here, yet poverty is more intractable than ever. Perhaps poverty is so high because of such policies, which always hike taxes, expand programs and regulate the heck out of the private sector.
Greenhut’s overall point is that championing policies that promote work is the best solution to poverty. He notes how California’s solution to workers circumventing licensure laws (to earn a living) is to criminalize them. What a mess! State lawmakers seem more keen on enabling dependency than work.
At the NCAE rally on May 1, it became evident that writing more on poverty would be valuable, particularly given Rev. William Barber’s constant claims that government intervention, more spending, and more programs could provide some kind of messianic deliverance for those held captive by all the “greed.” Of course, the government is never greedy in demanding more and more income and resources of the citizenry.
While it’s too complex to delve into all the monumental breakdowns in government intervention to solve poverty for a blog post, one of the most obvious has been the devastation to family life. Certainly, there is ample evidence that family breakdown has been devastating to the efforts to overcome poverty. Many started to notice that the government was merely subsidizing the poor which allowed many male figures to more easily abandon their familial obligations. Even by the 1970s, some liberals had become disillusioned by the unintended consequences of the Great Society. This is particularly evident in books like Michael Knox Beran’s biography of Robert Kennedy.
With government crowding out more of the space of civil society, that too has had a significant impact on addressing poverty. In many respects, the government has tried to solve a problem that is better addressed by charitable organizations, who are often closer and more directly engaged with the problem itself.
Since the government often treated the poor as a homogenous group this led to a host of problems and other social decay, a lot of it manifested by drug addictions not just in inner-city life, but rural areas as well, particularly with the loss of economic opportunities for males.
Along those lines, the government tends to define poverty as a material shortage or even a shortage of access to consumer goods. But if anybody is familiar with Dolly Parton’s superb songwriting prowess in “Coat of Many Colors,” she coyly notes, “that one is only poor, only if they choose to be.” Poverty can’t just be measured by the lack of material goods. Government can’t solve the poverty of loneliness, spirituality, and even poverty of truth in a relativistic world. Perhaps that is the greatest deficiency of all when it comes to the bureaucratic or the political elites attempt at solving poverty. Even if the government was somehow successful at addressing economic poverty, the intentions still largely fail because they don’t address other areas of poverty, particularly spiritual. A lack of hope is much worse than any short-term material poverty.
At any rate, groups like Civitas, and people in almost every religious faith should be very concerned about the poor. Their ability to improve and hopefully flourish is a benefit to the common good. Of course, we should be concerned enough to do something about it particularly since the government is ill-equipped to solve it.
Primarily, the best way to solve poverty is through economic growth and ingenuity, not the government, which primarily promotes dependency. Civil society plays a role, but it too needs access to economic growth and igenuity as well. One of the most valuable ways to alleviate poverty in society is for the citizenry to recognize that government has limits and has been constrained by our federal and state constitutions for a reason. Given the legacy of all these failed programs, many of them mentioned in Greenhut’s article, understanding the limits of government is an essential first step to collectively addressing it.