The welfare state has 1) reduced measured poverty, but it has 2) failed to provide sufficient opportunity and economic mobility. In “Two Premises on Poverty and Culture“, Ross Douthat writes that it should be easy for Left and Right to agree on these points. #1 is a fairly well-established empirical fact, while #2 leaves plenty of room to debate what went wrong and how to fix it. The Left might well call for more resources to be plowed into the effort; the right believes that the welfare state has fostered dependency and subverted social institutions. The best that can be said is that the modern welfare state leaves the poor “running in place”, but that concedes far too much to programs rife with disincentives for legal, market work effort. I wrote about this topic just over a month ago, in “Poverty Maintenance Is Not a Win“. While Douthat’s short essay sought common ground upon which Right and Left can debate reforms, he notes that anti-poverty programs:
“... raise incomes but also increase dependency, encourage idleness, crowd out the basic institutions of civil society, and so on through the libertarian critique.“
This is not to diminish the waste inherent in other areas of government largess, such as corporate subsidies, defense spending, and over-regulation. Virtually any government program can be called out on waste and unintended consequences. Tonight, however, we’re featuring the dismal results of the welfare state. Thomas Sowell, a well-known African American economist, is uncompromising in his condemnation of the welfare state in connection with recent protests by blacks against perceived injustices in “The Inconvenient Truth about Ghetto Communities“:
“Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s. …
We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less.
There is no doubt that the behavioral dysfunctions induced by welfare state incentives have been compounded by the war on drugs. Like all prohibitions, it offers black market “opportunities” to the poor and unskilled while promoting violence and a high risk of arrest and imprisonment, contributing to the destruction of families and communities. But the welfare state itself effectively subsidizes the drug-war pathway to perdition:
You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.
Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock, to be fed and tended by others in a welfare state — and yet expecting them to develop as human beings have developed when facing the challenges of life themselves.“
The usual trope promoted by the Left is that more resources are required to end the cycle of dependency. That is dubious in light of the dramatic increases in U.S. welfare spending over the past 50 years. Those increases have been fairly steady, yet significant decreases in the incidence of poverty came to an end before 1970:
“Today, government spends 16 times more, adjusting for inflation, on means-tested welfare or anti-poverty programs than it did when the War on Poverty started. But as welfare spending soared, the decline in poverty came to a grinding halt.“
Finally, here is a little object lesson in the way Leftists typically misperceive facts surrounding the actual allocation of budgetary resources and the concomitant results. On April 28th, Jon Stewart said:
“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.“
Alex Tabarrok castigates Stewart for this gross misrepresentation of the foreign aid budget and the complete distortion of the facts surrounding school funding in Baltimore. Actually, per-student funding for the Baltimore city public schools is over 26% greater (a difference of more than $3,500 per year) than for the schools in Fairfax County, VA. The latter is considered one of the best school districts in the country. The funding of Baltimore schools is dominated by state contributions, but federal funding there exceeds local funding.