There Is Only One Way Out of Poverty

What's the best way to help people stuck in poverty get out of poverty? Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, shows where conservatives and progressives differ.

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What’s the best way to help poor people escape poverty?

Progressives and conservatives have very different answers to this question, but before we explore those answers, let’s agree on this:

Both progressives and conservatives believe that the government has a moral obligation to help those who, through bad luck or unfortunate circumstances, can’t help themselves.

Here’s what a conservative icon, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Frederic Hayek, said on the subject:

“There is no reason why, in a society that has reached the general level of wealth ours has attained, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all…some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work.”

Whatever the media might tell you, there isn’t a conservative out there who would not agree with Hayek’s statement.

As I have documented in my book, Who Really Cares, when it comes to philanthropy and charitable giving, conservatives actually out-give progressives -- by a lot.

Where the two sides disagree is on the role the government plays – not in protecting the poor from poverty, but in lifting them out of it.

Here’s a disturbing piece of data: On balance, since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs came fully online in 1966, the poverty rate in America has hardly budged.

That rate, as computed by the United States government, was 14.7 percent in 1966.

And today?

It’s 13.5 percent.

The rate has fluctuated a few points up and down over the decades. The net result is just one percentage point of progress. And this is after the government has spent over 20 trillion dollars on poverty relief programs.  

20 trillion dollars – the current size of the US debt -- and the needle has barely moved.

Now, it’s true that the official poverty rate doesn’t measure consumption. Certainly, poor people today have many more things than poor people did in 1970.

Across all income levels, including the poor, Americans are likely to have cell phones, air conditioners, flat screen TVs, computers and a car. And life expectancy has lengthened considerably thanks to overall improvements in health care.

But it demeans poor people to say that this material progress makes poverty less of a problem. Our goal should never be to merely make poverty less miserable for people. Our goal must be to make poverty more escapable.

Many progressives offer a straightforward solution: more funding for poverty programs. They believe that we need to transfer more wealth – through government taxation -- from people who have money to people who don’t. This is the income inequality argument.

Conservatives have a different answer: more opportunity.

Conservatives define success by how few people need help from the government, not by how many people we can enroll in government programs. When they see sixty percent more people on food stamps after the recession than we had before it started, conservatives say, “That’s not success. That’s failure!”

You see, conservatives believe that simply giving people money doesn’t help them escape poverty; on the contrary, it can keep them locked into it. Getting things without working for them is a very hard habit to break – so much so, that it can become a way of life.

According to my research, earning your way out of poverty is much more empowering and enduring than being supported by a variety of government programs, which do little more than maintain people in their poverty.

This doesn’t mean that government doesn’t have a role to play.

Indeed, wherever possible, the government and private charities should require people to work in exchange for social assistance. When we do this, we help people in two ways. First, through welfare, we are helping them meet their immediate material needs. And second, through work, we are helping them earn their own success—the key to a fulfilling and dignified life.

Whether we’re progressive or conservative, shouldn’t that be what we want for our fellow citizens?

I’m Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, for Prager University.

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