The underclass has not fared well under government policies enacted in explicit efforts to improve its members’ well being. If there is any one point on which I agree with Donald Trump, it is his recent assertion that “progressive” policies have been disastrous for minorities. Indeed, there is evidence that many public programs have been abject failures, even in terms of achieving basic goals. Some programs have managed to improve the immediate lot of the impoverished, but they have done so without freeing the beneficiaries of long-term dependency, and perhaps have encouraged it. An underlying question is whether there is something endemic to these public initiatives that guarantees failure.
Arguments that public programs have such weaknesses are often based on the negative incentives they create, either for the intended beneficiaries (certain anti-poverty programs) or for employers who might otherwise work with them (absent minimum or “living” wages or regulatory obstacles). Then, of course, there are public services that are effectively monopolized (public schools) because they are “too important” to leave in the hands of private enterprise, with little recognition of the shoddy performance that is typical of institutions operating free of competitive pressure. And government action such as environmental policy often has a regressive impact, costing the poor a far greater share of income than the rich, and causing direct job losses in certain targeted industries.
A post from The Federalist Papers on “The Top 5 Ways Liberal Policies Hurt The Poor” is instructive. In addition to the welfare incentive trap, it highlights the failure of public schools to serve the educational needs of the poor, the minimum wage as a system of marginalization, urban gun control as a sacrifice of defenseless victims, and the extension of rights to illegal immigrants at the expense of U.S. citizens, especially low-skilled workers.
A fine essay by Kurt Williamsen entitled “Do Progressive Policies Hurt Black Americans?” focuses on three general areas of failure: public education, the workplace and welfare. He notes that certain educational innovations have met with success, yet are ridiculed by the progressive left because they promote competition. He cites the dismal consequences for blacks of various labor and employment laws: “prevailing wage rates, the minimum wage, union bargaining power, occupational and business licensing laws, and affirmative action laws to comply with federal and state contracting requirements“. Even more astonishing is that the original motive for some of these policies, such as minimum wages and prevailing wage laws, was to keep unskilled blacks from competing with white union labor. They still work that way. Williamsen also discusses the fact that the welfare state has essentially left low-income blacks running in place, rather than lifting them out of dependency. Unfortunately, those programs have also inflicted large social costs, such as the disintegration of family in the black community:
“Welfare programs had an insidious effect on black culture — more so than white culture — because of the way they were designed. With dramatically more blacks than whites being in poverty and with less future prospects when the War on Poverty got started, young black women often had children out of wedlock, beginning a cycle of enduring poverty and welfare wherein they relied on welfare as a main source of income, as did their children. Welfare provided more money for young women with fatherless children, on average, than the same young women could have made if they were employed. If a woman became married, she would lose benefits, making it beneficial for her to either just hook up with men or cohabitate, rather than marry.“
Redistributionist policies have long been criticized for creating incentive problems among recipients of aid. Some of those problems have been corrected with the Earned Income Tax Credit, which operates as something of a negative income tax, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which incorporates work requirements. However, as Vanessa Brown Colder at the CATO Institute points out, there is a need for further reforms to the many underperforming programs.
Like any large government program, redistribution also damages incentives for those who must pay the tab, generally those at higher income levels. High taxes ultimately discourage investment in capital and in new businesses that could improve the employment and income prospects of low-income segments. Here is Andrew Lundeen at The Tax Foundation:
“When fewer people are willing to invest, two things happen. First, the capital stock (i.e. the amount of computers, factories, equipment) shrinks over time, which makes workers less productive and decreases future wages.“
Redistributionists do their intended beneficiaries no favor by advocating for steeply progressive tax structures, which simply discourage investment in productive risk capital, impairing growth in labor income. This chart from Dan Mitchell shows a cross-country comparison of capital per worker and labor compensation. Not surprisingly, the relationship is quite strong. The lesson is that we should do everything we can to improve investment incentives. Punitive taxes on those who earn capital income is counterproductive.
Mitchell emphasizes a few other statist obstacles to empowering the disadvantaged here, including a brief discussion of how land-use regulations harm the poor. He quotes Leigh Franke of The Urban Institute:
“Restrictive land-use regulations, including zoning laws, are partially to blame for the stagnant growth… Land-use regulations may be intended to protect the environment or people’s health and safety, and even to enhance the supply of affordable housing, but in excess, they restrict housing supply, drive up home prices, and limit mobility. …More and more zoning restrictions meant less construction, fewer permits, and a restricted housing supply that drove up prices even further. …cities often have stringent zoning laws, a restricted housing supply, and high prices, making it nearly impossible for lower-income residents and newcomers, who would likely benefit most from the opportunities available, to find affordable housing.“
On the topics of local housing, labor laws, services, and regulatory burdens, Scott Beyer covers the maladies of that most progressive of cities, San Francisco. The city’s policies have helped create one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets and have made the city’s distribution of income highly unequal. It is no coincidence that the politics of most of our declining cities are dominated by the progressive left.
Here is another fascinating example of negative unintended consequences arising from intervention on behalf of a disadvantaged group: so-called “Ban the Box” (BTB) initiatives. These laws prevent employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s crime record, at least until late in the hiring process. Mitchell recently cited a study finding that BTB laws are associated with a reduction in employment opportunities for minorities. This disparate impact might be the result of more subtle screening by employers, demonstrating a reluctance to interview individuals belonging to groups with high crime rates. Apparently, employers are willing to give minorities a better chance when information on crime history is disclosed up-front.
Deleterious forms of intervention may vary from one disadvantaged group to another. For example, Native Americans have long been handicapped by federal control of their lands and their natural resources. Regulation of activity taking place on reservations is particularly burdensome, including a rule under which title to land must:
“… be passed in equal shares to multiple heirs. After several generations, these lands have become so fractionated that there are often hundreds of owners per parcel. Managing these fractionated lands is nearly impossible, and much of the land remains idle.“
Progressives often vouch for interventionism on the belief that thpse policies are ethically beyond question, such as climate change regulation. Of course, the science of whether anthropomorphic climate change is serious enough to warrant drastic and costly action is far from settled. The existence of high costs is deemed virtually irrelevant by proponents of activist environmental laws. Those costs fall heavily on the poor by raising the cost of energy-intensive necessities and by raising business costs, in turn diminishing employment opportunities. This is more pronounced from a global perspective than it is for the U.S., as emphasized in “Protect the poor – from climate change policies“, at the Watts Up With That? blog.
The world’s poor secure massive benefits from trade, but progressive policies often seek to inhibit trade based on misguided notions of “fairness” to workers in low-wage countries. And trade restrictions tend to benefit relatively high-wage workers by shielding them from competitive pressure. Brian Doherty in Reason talks about the nationalism of the Bernie Sanders brand, and how it undermines the poor. Donald Trump’s trade agenda has roughly the same implications. Protectionism should be rejected by the under-privileged, as it increases the prices they pay and ultimately reduces employment opportunities.
Certainly progressives always hope to assist the disadvantaged, but their policies have created a permanent dependent class. The simple lessons are these: working, producing and hiring must be rewarded at the margin, not penalized; interfering with wages and prices is counterproductive; all forms of regulation are costly; programs must be neutral in their impact on personal decisions; and property rights must be secure. Historically, economic freedom has lifted humanity from the grips of poverty. In virtually every instance, government micro-management has done the opposite. Unfortunately, it is difficult for progressives to overcome their reflexive tendency to “do something” about the poor by invoking the ever-klutzy power of the state.