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Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two types of statists.

The first type is generally insincere and simply views bigger government and increased dependency as a strategy to obtain and preserve political power. Most inside-the-beltway leftists in Washington are in this category.

The second type genuinely cares about the less fortunate but makes the mistake of thinking that good intentions somehow lead to good results. You could call these people the Pope Francis leftists.

As you might imagine, there’s very little hope of persuading the first category of statists. You could show them all the data and evidence in the world, for instance, that a flat tax would boost prosperity, and they’ll simply shrug and tell you to jump in a lake because genuine tax reform would reduce the power and influence of Washington’s political elite.

But the second group of statists should be persuadable. That’s why I share so many comparisons of nations with smaller government and freer markets versus countries with bigger government and more intervention. I want open-minded folks on the other side to see how good policy leads to better economic performance, particularly since the poor will be big beneficiaries. That should be compelling, especially when combined with the data on how the welfare state simply traps poor people in government dependency.

I then try to augment that macro data with specific micro examples of how policies that seem compassionate actually backfire.

Is it compassionate, for instance, to increase the minimum wage if that means low-skilled workers can’t get jobs?

Alternatively, is it compassionate to extend unemployment benefits if that means people are less likely to get jobs?

Anyhow, all this discussion is simply to provide some context for a very good piece on the pitfalls of John Kasich and so-called compassionate conservatism.

In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberly Strassel takes aim at Governor Kasich and other folks who think big government is somehow good for the poor.

…here’s one way to divide the arena: small-government reformers and big-government surrenderists. That debate is at the center of a bigger GOP meditation on how to better appeal to the poor and minorities. Mr. Kasich has emerged as the most eloquent and compelling spokesperson for the go-big camp. …his theme: that it’s OK to be “conservative” and have a “big heart.” It’s his way of excusing his decision to embrace ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, putting that welfare program on track to consume 50% of Ohio’s operating budget in 2016.

Needless to say, Ms. Strassel doesn’t think Kasich’s embrace of Obamacare demonstrates a big heart.

Instead, it’s just the latest manifestation of the big-government conservatism that failed so badly last decade.

This is “compassionate conservatism”—or at least a bastardized version of it. George W. Bush first used that phrase to explain how conservative policies made everyone better off. But it would later turn into a license for Republicans to embrace government for their own conservative ends. Giant new education spending was needed to create school “accountability”; a new Medicare drug entitlement would create health-care “competition;” green-energy subsidies bolstered “national security.” …The philosophy got a revamp in the past year in the self-styled “reformicon” movement. …it’s Compassionate Conservatism 2.0.

And what happens when you cede the moral high ground and agree with the statists that bigger government somehow benefits people?

…underpinning the entire compassionate-conservative movement is a glum surrender to the entitlement state. The left has won; all that remains is to argue that conservative big-government is better managed than liberal big-government.

Ms. Strassel is much more impressed with what she calls the “small-government reformers.”

…there is another approach to compassion. It’s the version made popular by Jack Kemp, and embraced by House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan—and a growing list of converts. It holds that there is nothing whatsoever compassionate about consigning low-income Americans to a government health-care system that delivers second-class outcomes. There’s nothing compassionate about making today’s working poor pay into a bleeding Social Security system… There’s nothing compassionate about propping up a federally run poverty industrial-complex that spends most of its money on itself. The Kemp-Ryan view knows that government is the problem, not the answer—not in any form. The answer is to devolve the money and power back to states and communities…spreading the gospel of smaller government, in the name of helping those most vulnerable.

Amen. Kemp was a hero in the battle to lower confiscatory tax rates, leading to a victory that was enormously successful in the 1980s. And Ryan deserves endless praise for his efforts to reform entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

This is the approach that offers the most hope to the less fortunate because it enables growth and job creation.

Big-government conservatism, by contrast, undermines economic dynamism by acquiescing to the idea of an ever-growing state.

By the way, none of this suggests that John Kasich is universally bad on policy or that Paul Ryan is universally good. Kasich, after all, was Chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s when genuine spending restraint led to a balanced budget. And Paul Ryan’s otherwise good ideas on tax reform have been marred by occasional flirtation with a value-added tax.

What ultimately matters is whether a politician is – on balance – pushing to shrink the size and power of the federal government. So ultimately it’s an imperfect process of deciding which lawmaker is 75 percent good and which one is 65 percent good (or, in too many cases, comparing one who is 10 percent good with one who is 5 percent good).

P.S. If “Libertarian Jesus” is correct and genuine compassion is defined as helping others with your own money, then Americans have much bigger hearts than their European counterparts.

P.P.S. Speaking of compassion, here’s an anti-Obama joke featuring some Pennsylvania cops.

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I’ve written over and over again that the federal government’s so-called War on Poverty has been a disaster.

It’s been bad news for taxpayers, of course, but it’s also been bad news for poor people since they get trapped in dependency.

So what’s the alternative? Well, we actually can learn a lot from history.

Let’s start on the other side of the Atlantic. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a fascinating video (which is part of a must-watch series) looking at the English debate in the 1830s on how best to deal with poverty.

Now let’s cross the ocean and look at the American experience.

Professor Thomas West of Hillsdale College has researched welfare policies in the early days of the United States.

Here are some of his key findings.

…government-funded welfare, not to mention generous private charity, has existed throughout American history. …The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.

Government was involved, but only at the local level, and assistance was a two-way street.

From the earliest colonial days, local governments took responsibility for their poor. However, able-bodied men and women generally were not supported by the taxpayers unless they worked. They would sometimes be placed in group homes that provided them with food and shelter in exchange for labor. Only those who were too young, old, weak, or sick and who had no friends or family to help them were taken care of in idleness.

Here’s more.

Welfare is kept local so that the administrators of the program will know the actual situations of the persons who ask for help. This will prevent abuses and freeloading. …A distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is carefully observed. Able-bodied vagabonds get help, but they are required to work in institutions where they will be disciplined. Children and the disabled, on the other hand, are provided for, not lavishly but without public shame. …Poor laws to support individual cases of urgent need were not intended to go beyond a minimal safety net. Benefit levels were low.

Interestingly, Professor West writes about Benjamin Franklin’s low opinion of England’s welfare system (as it existed before the 1830s, obviously), which was much more generous.

Here’s some of what Franklin wrote, as cited by West.

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

This was not an unusual perspective.

Franklin’s understanding of the welfare paradox—that aid to the poor must be managed carefully lest it promote indolence and therefore poverty—was shared by most Americans who wrote about and administered poverty programs until the end of the 19th century. …policies were intended to help the poor in ways that did not violate the rights of taxpayers or promote irresponsible behavior.

Thomas Jefferson definitely agreed, as seen in this quote included in Professor West’s analysis.

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

If you remember the discussion of “indoor” and “outdoor” relief from the video about the English welfare system, you won’t be surprised to learn similar issues were present in the United States.

As the poor population grew, many concluded that “outdoor relief” was leading people to look on welfare as an entitlement and creating a class of permanent dependents. Consequently, the emphasis soon shifted to “indoor relief”—almshouses and workhouses.

Professor West also cites the strong role of private charity, which also was based on tough-love compassion.

After the Revolution and throughout the 19th century, hospitals for the poor, educational institutions, YMCAs, and Salvation Army branches were established in growing numbers all over America by public-spirited citizens. Like the public workhouses, these private charities distinguished between deserving and undeserving poor. Good character, it was thought, would enable most people to become self-sufficient. These agencies tried to build the character of their recipients through education, moral suasion, religious instruction, and work.

Now let’s see what West says about the effectiveness of the tough-love approach from America’s past with the entitlement approach used today.

If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. …However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before 1965 could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post-1965 poverty programs have failed.

In other words, if the goal is to make people comfortable in dependency, the current system is a big success.

But if the goal is self reliance and reduced poverty, than the current system is a terrible failure.

Professor West has some great data on how a combination of long-run growth and a sensible welfare system combined to dramatically reduce destitution between the nation’s founding and the 1960s.

Two centuries ago, most Americans—at least 90 percent—were desperately poor by today’s standards. Most houses were small, ill-constructed, and poorly heated and insulated. Based on federal family income estimates, 59 percent of Americans lived in poverty as late as 1929, before the Great Depression. In 1947, the government reported that 32 percent of Americans were poor. 

This is fascinating and valuable information. At least for those of us with a wonky interest in public policy.

Back in 2010, I shared a chart based on far more limited data to show the poverty rate consistently falling after World War II.

But only up to a point. Once the federal government declared War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, we stopped making progress.

Now, based on Professor West’s data, I can create a chart going back to 1815.

I arbitrarily connected the data points with straight lines for lack of any other obvious alternative, but that’s not important. The key point of the graph is to see that the level of poverty dramatically before Washington got involved.

Professor West puts 2 and 2 together and gets 4.

…before the huge growth in government spending on poverty programs, poverty was declining rapidly in America. After the new programs were fully implemented, the poverty rate stopped declining.

Let’s begin to wrap up our discussion.

West points out that Benjamin Franklin’s criticisms of the English welfare system apply even more so to the mess we have in America today.

And this is a very costly mistake.

The incentive structure of the modern welfare state is similar to the one that Franklin condemned in old England, except that ours is more generous and more tolerant of single motherhood. Since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the modern War on Poverty, total annual government welfare spending has grown from less than $9 billion (1.3 percent of gross domestic product) to $324 billion (5 percent of GDP) in 1993 to $927 billion (6 percent of GDP) in 2011. Between 1965 and 2013, the government spent $22 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on means-tested welfare programs—more than three times the costs of all military wars in the history of the United States. …These figures do not take into account state, county, and municipal benefits. Nor do they take into account the massive use of Social Security Disability as a de facto welfare program (as of 2005, 4.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 were enrolled).

We had successful welfare reform in the 1990s, to be sure, but it dealt with just one program.

The overall trend, as discussed two days ago, is ever-growing levels of dependency.

The basic problem—that government makes it affordable for women to bear and raise children without husbands while living independently in households of their own—is still there. …High benefit levels and irresponsible attitudes toward sex and marriage create a world in which many children have few or no ties to their fathers; in which mothers, increasingly unmarried, are more often abused and exploited; and in which many men join gangs and take up crime as a way of life. …The contemporary outlook on welfare has both propelled the family’s disintegration and promoted vast dependence. …antipoverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called “temperate liberty.”

I guess what we have now in America is intemperate dependence.

Hmmm, maybe the solution is to go back to the system that worked. And that means getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution.

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Back during the 2012 presidential campaign, I criticized the view that America was divided between “makers” and “takers.”

But not because I disagreed with the notion that people trapped in government dependency have an unfortunate self-interest in supporting politicians who want a bigger welfare state. Indeed, I’ve explicitly warned that some statist politicians explicitly want to create more dependency to advance their power.

That being said, it’s important to understand the depth of the problem. It’s not accurate, as I’ve written, to assume that people who don’t pay tax are part of the moocher class.

…those people are not necessarily looking for freebies from government. Far from it. Many of them have private sector jobs and believe in self reliance and individual responsibility. Or they’re students, retirees, or others who don’t happen to have enough income to pay taxes, but definitely don’t see themselves as wards of the state.

Moreover, it’s not even accurate to say that households receiving benefits from the government are part of the dependency class.

…the share of households receiving goodies from the government...is approaching 50 percent and it probably is much more correlated with the group of people in the country who see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But even that correlation is likely to be very imprecise since some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.

If we really want to understand the depth of America’s dependency problem, it’s much better to look at the share of the population that gets money from anti-poverty programs.

The Census Bureau has just released a report looking at the share of the population receiving “means-tested” benefits, which is the term for programs targeting low-income recipients. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights) from the accompanying release.

Approximately 52.2 million (or 21.3 percent) people in the U.S. participated in major means-tested government assistance programs each month in 2012, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. Participation rates were highest for Medicaid (15.3 percent) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program (13.4 percent). The average monthly participation rate in major means-tested programs increased from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 20.9 percent in 2011. …The largest share of participants (43.0 percent) in any of the public assistance programs stayed in the programs between 37 and 48 months.

Perhaps more worrisome are the details on how some segments of the population are more likely to be trapped in government dependency.

In an average month, 39.2 percent of children received some type of means-tested benefit, compared with 16.6 percent of people age 18 to 64 and 12.6 percent of people 65 and older. …At 41.6 percent, blacks were more likely to participate in government assistance programs in an average month. …At 50 percent, people in female-householder families had the highest rates of participation in major means-tested programs.

Though perhaps “trapped” is too strong a word. As you can see from this table, less than 50 percent of recipients appear to be long-term dependents.

Looking at all this data, my conclusion is that we’re not in any immediate danger of hitting a “tipping point” of too much dependency. To be sure, the trends are not favorable, thanks to politicians like Obama, but 21 percent of the population receiving means-tested benefits is not nearly as bad as 47 percent.

Though it appears that the Census Bureau doesn’t count the “earned income credit” in its calculations. That’s an odd omission since it is a means-tested spending program (operated through the tax code). So the problem presumably is worse than what is stated in the report, but I’m assuming that there’s a big overlap between EIC recipients and those already counted by the Census Bureau. which means that the share of households getting money from Uncle Sam is still significantly less than 30 percent.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried. Indeed, the welfare state should be radically changed because we care about both taxpayers and poor people.

Writing for The Federalist, Robert Tracinski explores specific policies that would restrain and reduce the welfare state.

He lists seven ideas, which I’ve shared below (in very abbreviated form) followed by my two cents.

1) Repeal ObamaCare – If we want to roll back the welfare state, we will never have any better opportunity to start than by repealing ObamaCare—a program that is relatively new, has never been popular, and is in a slow process of imploding.

My response: Fully agree.

2) Health Savings Accounts – Scrapping ObamaCare would be a natural opportunity for Republicans to propose their own free-market health-care reforms. The centerpiece of that alternative should be Health Savings Accounts, which make it easier for individuals to save money in tax-free accounts which they can use for medical expenses.

My response: Not my preferred option. HSAs are a big improvement over the current system and presumably would help with the third-party payer problem, but fixing healthcare requires far bigger changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s fringe benefit loophole. And if you make those changes, HSAs wouldn’t really matter.

3) Means-test Social Security – Social Security is already a bad deal for the middle class, since the benefits are already skewed in such a way that they are equivalent to a tiny return, between 1 and 2 percent annually, on what might have been a private investment. By contrast, long-term returns on the stock market are about 7 percent annually. And in order to make Social Security sustainable, it will have to become a much worse deal.

My response: Also not my preferred option. Too many otherwise sensible people are giving up on personal retirement accounts.

4) Restart economic growth – the United States has slipped into the Obama rate of growth, a permanent state of semi-stagnation. We’ve been through market crashes and recessions before, but usually after a year or two of pain, we get a strong burst of growth to make up for it. …This low rate of growth makes the burden of the welfare state greater, because we can no longer grow our way out from under its expenses. …If we’re going to expect people to be more self-reliant, they must also have a sense of economic hope.

My response: Hard to argue with this suggestion, or the description of the problem.

5) Re-reform welfare – …the Obama administration has used the recession to gut the welfare reform of the 1990s, extending unemployment benefits and loosening work requirements. …the administration has used the state for the opposite purpose: to push people from self-reliance into dependence.

My response: Also hard to argue with this suggestion. It’s very worrisome how leftists are operating behind the scenes to push more dependency.

6) Save the cities – …the centers of economic inequality and racial conflict—the key issues on which Democrats always campaign—are places that are the sole property of Democrats, owned and run by them for about as long as anyone can remember. …If we want less class and racial conflict, if we want more people moving up into the middle class and no longer feeling the need for government support, if we want to compete for the vote in what are now deep centers of political support for the left—then we need to start targeting the cities for basic reforms that will improve the quality of life there and bring back the middle class.

My response: A very accurate description of the problem, but I suspect advocates of limited government won’t gain control of policy in big cities, so it might be better to first focus on rhetorical efforts to explain how statism leads to bad results.

7) Federalism – This is not a foolproof solution, because we’ll still occasionally get local handouts… But the general idea is that we can let New York and California set up more generous welfare states—if they want to pay for them. And they should let the hinterland scale back welfare. Then the states can compete to see whose approach is more successful and how many people vote with their feet for the small government model.

My response: Bingo!! This is far and away the right answer and it’s got plenty of intellectual firepower behind it.

America isn’t Europe, either in terms of policy or attitudes. But I worry that we’re heading that direction.

The Census Bureau gives us the data and Robert Tracinski has given us some good answers.

But will the solutions be implemented before too many people are riding in the wagon of government dependency? Because once you reach that point, there’s probably little hope.

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President Obama recently took part in a poverty panel at Georgetown University. By D.C. standards, it was ideologically balanced since there were three statists against one conservative (I’ve dealt with that kind of “balance” when dealing with the media, as you can see here and here).

You won’t be surprised to learn that the President basically regurgitated the standard inside-the-beltway argument that caring for the poor means you have to support bigger government and more redistribution.

Many observers were unimpressed. Here’s some of what Bill McGurn wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

The unifying progressive contention here is the assertion that America isn’t “investing” enough in the poor—by which is meant the government isn’t spending enough. …President Obama…went on to declare it will be next to impossible to find “common ground” on poverty until his critics accept his spending argument.

I think this argument is nonsense. We’re spending record amounts of money on means-tested, anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate hasn’t come down since the “War on Poverty” started.

Indeed, you can make a very persuasive case that government intervention has backfired since the poverty rate was falling before the federal government got involved. Yet now that Washington is paying people to be poor, progress has ground to a halt.

In his column, though, McGurn pointed out that it’s also important to look at how money is spent.

…it’s simply false to say that Republicans won’t make the public “investments” needed to help the poor. In New York in the 1990s, for example, Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani not only invested in the police but sent them into the areas where they were most needed—primarily poor and minority neighborhoods. In too many other Democratic cities, by contrast, mayors in effect cede whole neighborhoods to the thugs and gangs. Republicans are also willing to spend on education. What they are not willing to do is dump ever more dollars down the same rathole of big-city public school systems that function more as jobs programs for city bureaucrats and members of the teachers unions.

And he challenged the view of some GOPers that government spending will promote stable families.

…it would similarly be good for Republicans to address the hard implications of their own message. If, for example, broken families are indeed driving modern American poverty, is the only answer despair—or praying for some miracle? And if you believe the government can’t help but bungle something as basic as food stamps, shouldn’t you bring this same skepticism to a “conservative” program that enlists the government to, say, discourage divorce or promote chastity?

I certainly agree with that point. President Bush’s program to encourage marriage certainly wasn’t a success.

But let’s focus on the present. Here’s some of what Thomas Sowell said about Obama’s performance. As you can see, he was not impressed with the President’s abuse of the English language.

One of the ways of fighting poverty, [the President] proposed, was to “ask from society’s lottery winners” that they make a “modest investment” in government programs to help the poor. …But the federal government does not just “ask” for money. It takes the money it wants in taxes, usually before the people who have earned it see their paychecks. …It seizes what it wants by force. If you don’t pay up, it can take not only your paycheck, it can seize your bank account, put a lien on your home and/or put you in federal prison. So please don’t insult our intelligence by talking piously about “asking.”

And Sowell closes his column by raising the fundamental question of whether it makes sense to let government consume a greater share of economic output.

The fact that most of the rhetorical ploys used by Barack Obama and other redistributionists will not stand up under scrutiny means very little politically. After all, how many people who come out of our schools and colleges today are capable of critical scrutiny? When all else fails, redistributionists can say, as Obama did at Georgetown University, that “coldhearted, free-market capitalist types” are people who “pretty much have more than you’ll ever be able to use and your family will ever be able to use,” so they should let the government take that extra money to help the poor. …The real question is whether the investment of wealth is likely to be done better by those who created that wealth in the first place or by politicians. The track record of politicians hardly suggests that turning ever more of a nation’s wealth over to them is likely to turn out well.

Amen. The academic evidence is very strong that nations with large public sectors suffer from economic anemia.

And since the poor are most dependent on growth to get a good foothold on the economic ladder, Prof. Sowell surely is right when he states that it’s better to leave resources in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, he’s explained in the past that the welfare state certainly doesn’t help the poor.

P.S. Since today’s column ended with a discussion about whether government should be bigger or smaller, it’s appropriate to share this bit of humor concocted by the Princess of the Levant.

If you’re a new reader and don’t get the joke, Richard is famous for the Rahn Curve, though I think he overstates the growth-maximizing size of government. As such, I argue that we need to impose my (not nearly as famous) Golden Rule of spending restraint.

P.P.S. Shifting back to the topic of poverty and redistribution, we should all be very concerned that the Obama White is trying to manipulate the definition of poverty in order to justify ever-larger amounts of redistribution and dependency. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD supports this dishonest and misleading initiative.

P.P.P.S. Here’s an image that accurately summarizes the left’s misguided view of redistribution.

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Let’s revisit the issue of urban unrest, with special attention to the challenges for both entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens.

While potential police misconduct may serve as a trigger for riots, the powder keg is already in place because of decades of bad government policy.

Jay Steinmetz, who runs a supply-chain management company in Baltimore, provides a real-world perspective on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a city run by kleptocrats. Here are some excerpts from his Wall Street Journal column.

When the building alarm goes off, the police charge us a fee. If the graffiti isn’t removed in a certain amount of time, we are fined. This penalize-first approach is of a piece with Baltimore’s legendary tax and regulatory burden.  …Maryland still lags most states in its appeal to companies, according to well-documented business-climate comparisons put out by think tanks, financial-services firms, site-selection consultants and financial media. Baltimore fares even worse than other Maryland jurisdictions, having the highest individual income and property taxes at 3.2% and $2.25 for every $100 of assessed property value, respectively.

Here’s what it means, in terms of lost revenue, to Mr. Steinmetz’s company.

The bottom line is that our modest 14,000-square-foot building is hit with $50,000 in annual property taxes. And when we refinanced our building loan in 2006, Maryland and Baltimore real-estate taxes drove up the cost of this routine financial transaction by $36,000. State and city regulations overlap in a number of areas, most notably employment and hiring practices, where litigious employees can game the system and easily find an attorney to represent them in court. Building-permit requirements, sales-tax collection procedures for our multistate clients, workers’ compensation and unemployment trust-fund hearings add to the expensive distractions that impede hiring.

So it’s no surprise to learn that the geese with the golden eggs (as well as the silver and bronze eggs) are flying away.

Our employees reduce their tax burden and receive better public services in the suburbs.  …The financial problem Baltimore does face is a declining tax base, the most pronounced in the state. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $125 million in taxable annual income in Baltimore vanished between 2009 and 2010.

I’m not sure why Mr. Steinmetz hasn’t left as well. I guess it’s both admirable and foolish for him to persevere is such a hostile environment.

Thomas Sowell, in an article published by National Review, demolishes the argument that criminal behavior can be blamed on racism or poverty.

He starts by drawing attention to the 1960s as a key turning point.

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. …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.

Prof. Sowell then makes the obvious point that blacks faced much harsher conditions before the 1960s, yet crime was much lower.

And the black family was much more stable before the so-called war on poverty 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. Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much-lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.

Sowell’s point is that the welfare state created incentives for dysfunctional behavior.

And he stresses that this isn’t a racial issue.

Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period. …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.

I particularly appreciate his point about the importance of social capital, what he calls the requirements of civilization.

But this doesn’t mean black citizens don’t have some legitimate grievances. Radley Balko of the Washington Post explains that African-Americans are getting abused by greedy governments, just like Mr. Steinmetz.

He starts his article by sharing some good news on falling crime rates and big reductions in police deaths. But for our purposes today, the most powerful and relevant part of his story deals with one citizen’s interaction with government.

Antonio Morgan [is] a 29-year-old resident of Hazelwood, Missouri. He owns his own small business, a car repair and body shop he’d been saving up to buy since he was a teenager. He has also been arrested more than 20 times. All but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors. Morgan saved up for his business by fixing cars in his mother’s driveway. That required him to occasionally park cars on the street. That earned him parking tickets. He paid them when he could, but he occasionally missed deadlines. And that would lead to an arrest warrant. All of this also put Morgan on the radar of local police.

As you continue reading, keep in mind he was “on the radar” even though he did nothing to infringe on the life, liberty, and property of other citizens.

His unpaid parking tickets led not just to arrest warrants, but to the occasional suspension of his license. That led to more citations, although like many in the area, Morgan was sometimes pulled over and issued only a ticket for driving on a suspended license, or driving a car that wasn’t registered to him. (Morgan sometimes drove his clients’ cars to test them.) But there was no underlying traffic violation — which raises the question of why the officer pulled Morgan over in the first place, if it wasn’t to profile him. Those citations then led to more arrests.

It certainly seems as if St. Louis County in Missouri has been treating Mr. Morgan as a revenue-generating milk cow, much as Baltimore has been squeezing Mr. Steinmetz.

Different approach, but same result.

Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy.

Some of you may be wondering about the two ostensibly more serious arrests on his record.

Radley’s column discusses both, and it certainly looks like Mr. Morgan has been mistreated by the justice system.

Here’s the first arrest. And remember it only occurred because he had to be in court to deal with ridiculous fines and petty harassment.

As Morgan walked toward the courthouse a police officer asked him the kids in the truck were his. He replied that they were. The officer asked him why he had left them alone. Morgan replied that he hadn’t, and that the woman parked next to him had agreed to watch them. ..Morgan pleaded with the police officer to flag down his friends, who he said would vouch for him. He says the officer then threatened to Taser him. Morgan put up his hands. The officer then arrested him for child endangerment. …The incident still upsets Morgan — not even the arrest so much as that his children had to see it. “I’m a good father,” he says. “I own my own business. I provide for my kids. Do you know what it’s like for your own children to see you get arrested? For a cop to say, right in front of them, that he’s arresting you because you’re a bad parent?”

I’m not someone who sees racism under every bed and behind every tree, but you can’t help but wonder whether this incident would have even happened if he was a white guy in a business suit.

The second arrest is equally dubious.

…the officer confronted Morgan because he was “trespassing” on a neighbor’s lawn. Morgan responded that he wasn’t trespassing, because the neighbors didn’t mind. Morgan says the cop moved to arrest him, and he lost his cool. He claims he never struck the police officer, but he does admit that he screamed at him. Once he did, he was hit with a Taser and arrested for assaulting a police officer. That charge was later dropped. (The neighbors back Morgan’s account of the entire incident, including his assertion that he never touched the cop.)

It’s always a smart idea to act servile and obsequious when dealing with cops, so Mr. Morgan obviously didn’t play his cards right.

But imagine if you had been endlessly harassed. Wouldn’t you be angry? Radley sure would have been.

I was stunned. But not because Morgan lost his cool with the cop. I was stunned that it had taken him so long to do so. And that even then, he’d manage to restrain himself from physical violence. I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same.

Here’s the bottom line. Or, to be more accurate, two bottom lines.

First, we should sympathize with Mr. Morgan just as we should sympathize with Mr. Steinmetz. Actually, we should sympathize more with Morgan.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. …Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family.

Second, we should recognize that one “root cause” of the problem is greedy government.

The primary source of revenue for the local towns is sales tax. But the poorer (which means blacker) towns don’t generate enough income from sales taxes. So they turn to municipal fines to keep themselves from going under. The poorer the town and its residents, the more likely the town relies on fines for a greater percentage of its annual revenue. Which means that the blacker the town, the more likely its residents are getting treated like ATMs for the local government.

None of this justifies rioting. And I have to imagine that Mr. Morgan would be one of the good guys during any unrest (much like Stretch and his friends in Ferguson).

But stories like this should make all of us appreciate how some communities may have a very sour impression of the police.

Let’s close with some economic analysis of riots (hey, I’m a policy wonk, so bear with me).

Here’s some of what Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard wrote a few years ago for Bloomberg.

…public disturbances are a classic example of tipping-point phenomena, which occur when there is some positive feedback mechanism that makes an activity more attractive, or less costly, as more people do it. …There is a tipping point in rioting because the cost of participating — the risk of going to jail — gets lower as the number of people involved increases. …riots occur when the shear mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

He then looks at the more challenging issue.

But how do these mass events get started? In some cases, …such as the 1965 Watts Riot, a peaceful crowd provides cover for initial lawlessness. Sporting events, such as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver this year, can easily produce the crowds that allow a riot to start. Most strangely, riots can follow an event that creates a combination of anger and the shared perception that others will be rioting. The acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case seems to have created these conditions in Los Angeles in 1992.

The left-wing excuse for rioting doesn’t seem to have much merit.

…across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending.

But economic analysis gives us good clues, both about how to deter riots and who is most victimized when they occur.

Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. …Even when they are connected to understandable grievances, they do great harm, particularly to the poorest residents.

The moral of the story is that we should be tough on crime, but that doesn’t mean mistreating people like Antonio Morgan.

Instead, the legal system should focus on trying to deter bad behavior, which is when genuinely bad people infringe on the life, liberty, and property of others.

But how do we get politicians and bureaucrats to properly focus?

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As shown by this graphic, why are so many people in Maine taking advantage of the food stamp program? As shown by this map, why does Oregon have such a high level of food stamp dependency?

These are just rhetorical questions since I don’t have the answers. But if we can come up with good answers, that could lead to better public policy.

After all, if we want a self-reliant citizenry, it would be better if people were more like those in Nevada and less like the folks in Vermont, at least based on the infamous Moocher Index.

But one thing we can say with certainty is that the food stamp program has morphed into a very expensive form of dependency.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal opines on the importance of reforming this costly entitlement.

Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food-stamp program has become the country’s fastest-growing means-tested social-welfare program. …Between 2000 and 2013, SNAP caseloads grew to 47.6 million from 17.2 million, and spending grew to $80 billion from $20.6 billion… SNAP participation fell slightly last year, to 46.5 million individuals, as the economy improved, but that still leaves a population the size of Spain’s living in the U.S. on food stamps. …The unprecedented jump in food-stamp use over the past six years has mostly been driven by manufactured demand. The Obama administration has attempted to turn SNAP into a middle-class entitlement by easing eligibility rules and recruiting new food-stamp recipients. …Democrats tend to consider greater government dependence an achievement and use handouts to increase voter support. The president considers European-style welfare states a model for America.

Making America more like Greece, however, is not good news for taxpayers.

But the program also has negative effects on recipients. Contrary to the left’s narrative, we don’t have millions of starving people in America.

…it now operates more like an open-ended income-supplement program that discourages work. Some 56% of SNAP users are in the program for longer than five years, which suggests that the assistance is being used by most recipients as a permanent source of income, not as a temporary safety net. …“Today, instead of hunger, the central nutritional problem facing the poor, indeed all Americans, is not too little food but rather too much—or at least too many calories,” Douglas Besharov, who teaches courses on poverty alleviation at the University of Maryland, told the House Agriculture Committee last month. “Despite this massive increase in overweight and obesity among the poor, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption.

So why don’t we try to help both taxpayers and low-income Americans by reforming the program, specifically by “block-granting” it to the states?

Uncle Sam picks up almost all of the bill. That means states have little incentive to control costs. Republicans argue that shifting to block grants would not only save money but also encourage states to increase the labor-participation rate of low-income populations. A state that has only so much money to work with is more likely to promote self-sufficiency in the form of employment, job-search and job-training requirements for able-bodied adults on the dole.

Decentralization, Riley explains, worked very well in the 1990s with welfare reform.

…1996 reforms…imposed more stringent time limits and work requirements on welfare recipients enrolled in programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Welfare rolls subsequently plunged. By 2004, caseloads had fallen by 60% overall and by at least 30% in nearly every state. Child poverty, black child poverty and child hunger also decreased, while employment among single mothers rose. This was a welcome outcome for taxpayers, poor people and everyone else—except those politicians with a vested interest in putting government dependence ahead of self-sufficiency to get elected and re-elected.

So kudos to Republicans on Capitol Hill for proposing to put the states in charge of food stamps.

Just like they also deserve applause for working to block-grant the Medicaid program.

This is something that should happen to all mean-tested programs. Once they’re all back at the state level, we’ll get innovation, experimentation, and diversity, all of which will help teach policy makers which approaches are genuinely in the best interests of both taxpayers and poor people (at least the ones seeking to escape dependency).

Though I can’t resist adding one caveat. The ultimate goal should be to phase out the block grants so that states are responsible for both raising and spending the money.

Let’s close with a few real-world horror stories of what we’re getting in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent each year for food stamps.

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

P.S. Shifting to another example of government waste, let’s look at the latest example of overspending and mismanagement by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nothing, of course, can compare with the horrible outrage of bureaucrats awarding themselves bonuses after putting veterans on secret waiting lists and denying them care.

But having taxpayers pay nearly $300,000 just so a bureaucrat can move from one highly paid job in DC to another highly paid job in Philadelphia should get every American upset. Here are some of the sordid details from a local news report.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has also raised questions about the salary and “relocation payments” to the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens. Rubens, who was a senior executive in the D.C. office when she was tapped in June to take over the troubled Philadelphia branch, received more than $288,000 in relocation expenses. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road,” Miller said. …Under federal regulations, an agency can pay a variety of costs associated with reassigning an employee, including moving, closing costs, and a per-diem allowance for meals and temporary lodging for the employee’s household.

I’m baffled at how somebody could run up such a big bill. Did she use the space shuttle as a moving van?

Did she have to stay six months at a 5-star resort while waiting for her new house to be ready?

Does a per-diem allowance allow three meals a day at the most expensive restaurant in town?

This is either a case of fraud, which is outrageous, or it’s legal, which means it’s an outrageous example of government run amok.

Regardless, it underscores what I wrote back in 2011.

I will never relent in my opposition to tax increases so long as the crowd in Washington is spending money on things that are not appropriate functions of the federal government. …I will also be dogmatic in my fight against higher taxes so long as there is massive waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs.

Not to mention that we should never allow tax hikes when it’s so simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

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Sweden is an odd country, at least from the perspective of public policy.

On the positive side, it has private Social Security accounts. It has an admirable school choice system. And it was a good role model of spending restraint back in the 1990s.

But on the negative side, Sweden has one of the world’s biggest welfare states. Even after the spending restraint of the 1990s, the public sector consumes about 50 percent of economic output. And that necessitates a punitive tax code.

There’s also a truly perverse fixation on equality. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the government-run healthcare system produces some unpleasant outcomes.

Today, let’s build on our understanding of Sweden by looking at how the country’s welfare state interacts with the immigration system.

Writing for CapX, Nima Sanandaji discusses these issues in his adopted country of Sweden.

Sweden has had an unusually open policy towards refugee and family immigrants. The Swedish Migration Agency estimates that around 105,000 individuals will apply for asylum only this year, corresponding to over one percent of Sweden’s entire population.

This openness is admirable, but is it successful? Are immigrants assimilating and contributing to Sweden’s economy?

Unfortunately, the answer in many cases is no.

…the open attitude towards granting immigrants asylum is not matched by good opportunities on the labor market. An in-depth study by the daily paper Dagens Nyheter shows that many migrants struggle to find decent work even ten years after entering the country. …The median income for the refugees in the group was found to be as low as £880 a month. The family immigrants of refugees earned even less. Ten years after arriving in the country, their median income was merely £360 a month. These very low figures suggest that a large segment of the group is still relying on welfare payments. Dagens Nyheter can show that at least four out of ten refugees ten years after arrival are supported by welfare. The paper acknowledges that this is likely an underestimation.

So what’s the problem? Why are immigrants failing to prosper?

Nima suggests that government policies are the problem, creating perverse incentives for long-term dependency.

To be more specific, the country’s extravagant welfare state acts as flypaper, preventing people from climbing in the ladder of opportunity.

The combination of generous benefits, high taxes and rigid labour regulations reduce the incentives and possibilities to find work. Entrapment in welfare dependency is therefore extensive, in particular amongst immigrants. Studies have previously shown that even highly educated groups of foreign descent struggle to become self-dependent in countries such as Norway and Sweden. …The high-spending model is simply not fit to cope with the challenges of integration.

The part about “highly educated groups” is particularly important since it shows that the welfare trap doesn’t just affect low-skilled immigrants (particularly when high tax rates make productive activity relatively unattractive).

So what’s the moral of the story? Well, the one obvious lesson is that a welfare state is harmful to human progress. It hurts taxpayers, of course, but it also has a harmful impact on recipients.

And when the recipients are immigrants, redistribution is especially perverse since it makes it far less likely that newcomers will be net contributors to a nation.

And that then causes native populations to be less sympathetic to immigration, which in unfortunate since new blood – in the absence of bad government policy – can help boost national prosperity.

Though let’s at least give Sweden credit. I’m not aware that its welfare programs are subsidizing terrorism, which can’t be said for the United Kingdom, Australia, France, or the United States.

P.S. Here’s my favorite factoid about Sweden.

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