Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

In conversations with statists, I’ve learned that many of them actually believe the economy is a fixed pie. This misconception leads them to think that rich people get rich only by somehow making others poor.

In this simplistic worldview, a bigger slice for one person means less for everyone else.

In reality, though, their fixation on the distribution of income leads them to support policies that hinder growth.

And here’s the ironic part. When you have statist policies such as high taxes and lots of redistribution, the economy weakens and the result is a stagnant pie.

In other words, the zero-sum society they fear only occurs when their policies are in effect!

To improve their understanding (and hopefully to make my leftist friends more amenable to good policy ideas), I oftentimes share two incontestable facts based on very hard data.

1. Per-capita economic output has increased in the world (and in the United States), which obviously means that the vast majority of people are far better off than their ancestors.

2. There are many real-world examples of how nations with sensible public policy enjoy very strong growth, leading to huge increases in living standards in relatively short periods of time.

I think this is all the evidence one needs to conclude that free markets and small government are the right recipe for a just and prosperous society.

But lots of statists are still reluctant to change their minds, even if you get them to admit that it’s possible to make the economic pie bigger.

I suspect in many cases their resistance is because (at least subconsciously) they resent the rich more than they want to help the poor. That’s certainly the conclusion that Margaret Thatcher reached after her years in public life.

So, in hopes of dealing with this mindset, let’s augment the two points listed above.

3. There is considerable income mobility in the United States, which means today’s rich and today’s poor won’t necessarily be tomorrow’s rich and tomorrow’s poor.

Let’s look at some evidence for this assertion.

And we’ll start with businesses. Here’s what Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute found when he investigated changes in the Fortune 500.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2015 Fortune 500, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists… In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 60 years later in 2015… The fact that nearly 9 of every ten Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction… The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy, and that dynamic turnover is speeding up in today’s hyper-competitive global economy.

Here’s the list of the companies that have managed to stay at the top over the past six decades.

Now let’s shift from companies to people.

The most famous ranking of personal wealth is put together by Forbes.

Is this a closed club, with the same people dominating the list year after year?

Well, there’s considerable turnover in the short run, as noted by Professor Don Boudreaux.

…21 of the still-living 100 richest Americans of only five years ago are no longer in that group today.  That’s a greater than 20 percent turnover in a mere half-decade.

There’s a lot of turnover – more than 50 percent – in the medium run, as revealed by Mark Sperry.

Of the 400 people in the 2001 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, 230 were not in the 1989 list.

And there’s almost wholesale turnover in the long run, as discovered by Will McBride of the Tax Foundation.

Of the original Forbes 400 from the first edition in 1982, only 35 remain on the list. …Of those on the 1987 Forbes 400 list, only 73 remain there in 2013.

In other words, it’s not easy to stay at the top. New entrepreneurs and investors constantly take the place of those who don’t manage to grow their wealth.

So far, we’ve focused on the biggest companies and the richest people.

But what about ordinary people? Is there also churning for the rest of us?

The answer is yes.

Here are some remarkable findings from a New York Times column by Professor Mark Rank of Washington University.

I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60 to see what percentage of the American population would experience these different levels of affluence during their lives. The results were striking. It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. …This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60…this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income.

A thoroughly footnoted study from the National Center for Policy Analysis has more evidence.

…83 percent of adults born into the lowest income bracket exceed their parents’ income as adults. About 40 percent of people in the lowest fifth of income earners in 1986 moved to a higher income bracket by 1996, and roughly half of the people in the lowest income quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income bracket by 2005. …In both the 1970s and 1980s, 8 percent of children born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution rose to the top fifth. About 20 percent of children born in the middle fifth of the income distribution later rose to the top fifth.

And here’s some of Ronald Bailey’s analysis, which I cited last year.

Those worried about rising income inequality also often make the mistake of assuming that each income quintile contains the same households. They don’t. …In 2009, two economists from the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury compared income mobility in two periods, 1987 to 1996 and 1996 to 2005. The results, published in the National Tax Journal, revealed that “over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period.” …The Treasury researchers updated their analysis of income mobility trends in a May 2013 study for the American Economic Review, finding that about 75 percent of taxpayers between 35 and 40 years of age in the second, middle and fourth income quintiles in 1987 had moved to a different quintile by 2007.

Last but not least, let’s look at some of Scott Winship’s recent work.

…for today’s forty-somethings who grew up in the middle fifth around 1970…19 percent ended up in the top fifth, 23 percent in the middle fifth, and 14 percent in the bottom fifth… Among those raised in the bottom fifth, 43 percent remain there as adults. …30 percent made it to the top three-fifths… Mobility among today’s adults raised in the top fifth displays the mirror image: 40 percent remain at the top, 37 percent fall to the bottom three-fifths.

The bottom line is that there is considerable income mobility in the United States.

To be sure, different people can look at these numbers and decide that there needs to be even more churning.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the correct distribution of income is whatever naturally results from voluntary exchange in an unfettered market economy.

I’m far more concerned with another economic variable. Indeed, it’s so important that we’ll close by adding to the three points above.

4. For those who genuinely care about the living standards of the less fortunate, the only factor that really matters in the long run is economic growth.

This is why, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill, I keep trying to convince my leftist friends that growth is the best way to help the poor. I routinely share new evidence and provide real-world data in hopes that they will realize that good results are more important than good intentions.

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Three years ago, I shared a chart about the fiscal burden of the welfare state, calling it the picture that says a thousand word.

It’s astounding, after all, that taxpayers spend so much money on means-tested programs and get such miserable results.

Indeed, if we took all the money spent on various welfare programs and added it up, it would amount to $60,000 for every poor household.

Yet the handouts for poor people generally (but not always) are way below that level, so where does all the money go?

Well, this eye-popping flowchart (click to enlarge) from the House Ways & Means Committee is one way of answering that question. As you can see, there are dozens of programs spread across several agencies and departments.

In other words, a huge chunk of anti-poverty spending gets absorbed by a bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy (and this doesn’t even count the various bureaucracies in each state that also administer all these welfare programs).

This is akin to a spider web of dependency. No wonder people get trapped in poverty.

Fortunately, we have a very simple solution to this mess. Just get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income. We already got very good results by reforming one welfare program in the 1990s. So let’s build on that success.

P.S. Leftists generally will oppose good reforms, both because of their ideological belief in redistribution and also because overpaid bureaucrats (who would have to find honest work if we had real change) are a major part of their coalition. But there are some honest statists who admit the current system hurts poor people.

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Some issues never seem to get resolved. One would think, for instance, that leftists would be more cautious about pushing for a bigger welfare state given the fiscal crisis in Europe.

But we have folks like Bernie Sanders openly arguing we should be more like nations such as Denmark and Sweden.

To give some credit to the Vermont Senator, he’s at least smart enough to pick Scandinavian nations that compensate for the damaging impact of high taxes and excessive spending by being very market-oriented in all other respects.

Though I suspect he’d be horrified to know that he’s basically endorsing a laissez-faire approach to policies such as trade and regulation.

But let’s set aside the quirky candidacy of Bernie Sanders and focus on whether the United States, as a general rule, should be more like Europe.

To be sure, this is a very imprecise way to look at the issue since “Europe” includes very market-oriented countries such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom (both of which rank above the United States for overall economic freedom) as well as very statist nations such as Italy, France, and Greece.

But if you take the average of European nations, there’s no question that the continent would be further to the left than America on the statism spectrum.

So we should be able to learn some lessons by making general comparisons.

Let’s go to the other side of the world to get some insight on this issue. Oliver Hartwich is an economist with the New Zealand Initiative, and he looks at the negative consequences of the welfare state in his new publication, Why Europe Failed. He starts by sharing the grim data on how the burden of government spending has increased.

Government spending as a percentage of GDP increased dramatically across Europe all through the 20th century (Table 1). …Since the immediate post-World War II and reconstruction era, government spending has increased to unprecedented levels. The most extreme case is France where the state now accounts for well over half of the economy. …These spending rises have not been driven by the core areas of government spending of law and order, defence and certain public goods. …these European countries spent almost 30% of GDP on welfare alone, which is more than the total of government spending before World War II.

And here’s the Table he referenced.

Very similar to the data I shared back in 2013 for the simple reason that we’re both citing the superb work of Vito Tanzi.

Oliver adds some analysis, noting that Europe’s voters have sold themselves into dependency.

Bread and circuses – or panem et circenses in the Latin original – were the means of bribing the masses in ancient Rome. Modern Europe is witnessing a similar phenomenon. …Unfortunately, it is often overlooked that government can only bribe the people with their own money. …Buying European citizens’ loyalty for their mixed economy welfare states has effectively enslaved them.

He then shares lessons for New Zealand, but they’re also lessons for the United States.

…we have to make sure we do not repeat Europe’s mistakes. …be watchful of the rise of the welfare state. In Europe, the welfare state was a means of buying political power. Of course, the bribed electorate always paid for its own bribes. However, the arrangement worked for as long as new spending commitments could be financed through higher taxes, more debt, or indeed a combination of both. As government spending has now reached around 50% of GDP, and as the debt load stands at worrying levels, the European welfare state model has reached its limits. … we have the luxury of being three or four decades behind Europe’s demography curve. But this does not have to mean that we will be experiencing Europe’s problems 30 or 40 years later. It should mean that we have 30 or 40 years of finding ways to prevent a European replay by finding different answers to the challenges facing Europe today.

Here’s a short video of Hartwich discussing his work and its implications.

Now let’s look at another source of information. And we’ll actually deal with an argument being peddled by Bernie Sanders.

In an article for the Mises Institute, Ryan McMaken looks at the assertion that the United States has the highest poverty rate in the developed world.

Bernie Sanders claimed that the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty. …UNICEF…is probably the source of Sanders’s factoid… Sanders probably doesn’t even know what he means by “major country”.

Though maybe the OECD is the source of Senator Sanders’ data. After all, as Ryan explains, some organizations are completely dishonest in that their supposed poverty data actually measures income distribution rather than poverty.

We get much more insight, though, once we have a look at what UNICEF means by “poverty rate.” In this case, UNICEF (and many other organizations) measure the poverty rate as a percentage of the national median household income. …The problem here, of course, is that…the median income in the US is much higher than the median income in much of Europe. So, even someone who earns under 60% of the median income in the US will, in many cases, have higher income than someone who earns the median income in, say, Portugal.

McMaken then crunches the data to see what actually happens if you compare the poverty level of income in the United States to overall income in other industrialized nations.

So what’s the bottom line from this data?

The answer is that it’s better to be a “poor” person in the United States than an average person in many European nations.

…a person at 60% of median  income in the US still has a larger income than the median household in Chile, Czech Rep., Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and several others. And the poverty income in the US is very close to matching the median income in Italy, Japan, Spain, and the UK.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is wrong, UNICEF is wrong, and the OECD is wrong.

Poverty in the United States is not high.

Indeed, experts who have looked at actual measures of deprivation have concluded that the real poverty rate in the United States is relatively low. Even when compared with the more market-oriented countries in Northern Europe.

Last but not least, let’s look at one more Europe-America comparison, just in case the aforementioned data wasn’t sufficiently compelling. Check out this map showing how many young adults still live with their parents (h/t: Paul Kirby).

As pointed out above, Europe is not monolithic. The Northern European economies lean more toward free markets than the Southern European economies, so this map presumably captures some of that difference (though I imagine culture plays a role as well).

But for purposes of today’s analysis, our message is more basic. Simply stated, the United States should not be more like Europe. Instead, we should seek to be more like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Assuming, of course, that the goal is to have policies that promote prosperity.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that a nation’s long-run vitality and prosperity are correlated with the spirit of independence and self-reliance among its people.

Simply stated, if too many people thinks it’s okay to ride in the wagon of government dependency, that a troubling sign that social or cultural capital has eroded.

Government policy obviously plays a role, both because politicians create various redistribution programs and also because they can set rules that help determine whether there is any stigma for relying on taxpayers.

Some lawmakers even think recipients should be publicly identified, in part to weed out fraudsters and also to discourage dependency. Here are some passages from a story in the Washington Post.

If you receive government assistance in the state of Maine, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald thinks the public has a right to know about it. …Macdonald said a bill will be submitted during Maine’s next legislative session “asking that a Web site be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole.” He added: “After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.” …Macdonald told the Portland Press Herald that …“I hope this makes people think twice about applying for welfare.” …Publicly posting personal information, he said, could encourage people to go after those “gaming the system.”

Needless to say, this approach causes great consternation for some folks on the left.

Here’s some of what Dana Milbank wrote in his Washington Post column.

Rick Brattin, a young Republican state representative in Missouri, has…introduced House Bill 813, making it illegal for food-stamp recipients to use their benefits “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” …This is less about public policy than about demeaning public-benefit recipients. The surf-and-turf bill is one of a flurry of new legislative proposals at the state and local level to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor.

I admit it’s paternalistic, but if taxpayers are paying for someone else’s food, then shouldn’t they have the right to insist that recipients don’t buy junk food?

My view, of course, is that the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of redistributing income, but that’s an issue we discussed a few days ago.

Milbank also is upset that some lawmakers don’t want welfare benefits spent on frivolous things.

…the Kansas legislature passed House Bill 2258, punishing the poor by limiting their cash withdrawals of welfare benefits to $25 per day and forbidding them to use their benefits “in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, pari-mutuel facility, or sexually oriented business . . . or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.” …another state that prohibits welfare funds for cruise ships is true-blue Massachusetts.

Again, I have to ask why it’s unreasonable for taxpayers to put limits on how welfare funds are spent?

Setting aside my desire to get Washington out of the business of maintaining a welfare state, shouldn’t the people paying the bills have some right to decide whether they want recipients going to massage parlors and casinos?

Let’s now look at a very real-world example of how our friends on the left are trying to make dependency easier and more respectable.

They now want to make it easier and less discomforting for folks to get food stamps. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Daily Caller.

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looked at whether it should get rid of in-person interviews for those who apply to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is commonly known as food stamps. …the USDA with the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) conducted a limited real-world test to see if the in-person interviews are needed.

The report looks at test cases in Utah and Oregon to gauge the impact on “client and worker outcomes,” but obviously didn’t consider the impact on taxpayers.

The report says that the increase of participants from 17 million in 2000 to nearly 47 million recipients in 2014 is one reason why the application process should be made easier and less costly, but others have argued that more relaxed entry requirements into the program are the very reason it has expanded so much.

The latter group is correct. If people can sign up for freebies over the phone, with very weak verification procedures, then it should go without saying that the burden on taxpayers will grow even faster.

And for purposes of our discussion today, this proposal would make it even easier for people to become dependents. The government already has turned food stamps into a welfare-state version of a debit card, which means that recipients feel less conspicuous about relying on taxpayers. Now they wouldn’t even have to visit a food stamp office when first signing up for the system!

The bottom line is that it will be very healthy for our nation if most people feel reluctant and/or embarrassed to become wards of the state.

Fortunately, there are some folks who already have this self-reliant streak. Here’s a blurb from some analysis by Angela Rachidi for the American Enterprise Institute.

…research shows that a sizeable number of eligible people do not participate in SNAP because they do not want government assistance. According to a 2003 USDA report on the subject, 27% of eligible non-participants indicated that they would not enroll in the program even if they were assured they were eligible. The report cited the desire to feel independent as the primary driver in not wanting benefits.

Thank goodness there are still a non-trivial number of Americans who don’t want to mooch off taxpayers.

By the way, you may be shocked to learn that the people of California are the least likely to sign up for food stamps.

Too bad the folks in Maine, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington don’t have the same spirit of self reliance.

Heck, Vermont’s already famous for having the top spot in the Moocher Index.

P.S. While Dana Milbank apparently thinks there shouldn’t be any restrictions on food stamps, most taxpayers probably won’t be pleased to see these examples of their money being misspent.

Then Mr. Milbank can start investigating other examples of fraud, starting with Medicaid and the disability program.

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Two days ago, I contrasted the views of Pope Francis and Walter Williams about capitalism and morality.

I explained that Walter had the upper hand because free markets are a positive-sum game based on voluntary exchange while redistribution (at best) is a zero-sum game based on coercion.

That’s the theoretical argument. Now let’s look at the empirical data, specifically focusing on which approach is best for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is not impressed by the Pope’s analysis. Here some of what Prof. Sowell wrote for Investor’s Business Daily.

Pope Francis has created political controversy…by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. …putting aside religious or philosophical questions, we have more than two centuries of historical evidence… Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. …which has a better track record of helping the less fortunate — fighting for a bigger slice of the economic pie, or producing a bigger pie? …the official poverty level in the U.S. is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the U.S. has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left. Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.

I briefly discussed the failure of the Peronist Argentinian model last month, but let’s take a closer look at Professor Sowell’s assertions about the U.S. and Argentina.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has put together a great fact-filled website called Human Progress, and it allows users to access all sorts of databases to produce their own charts and tables.

And here’s what the data shows about per-capita economic output in Argentina and the United States.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the supposedly more compassionate system in Argentina.

As you can see from this table, Argentina actually was slightly richer than the U.S. back in 1896. But that nation’s shift to statism, particularly after World War II, hindered Argentina’s growth rates.

And seemingly modest differences in growth, compounded over decades, have a huge impact on living standards for ordinary people (i.e., inflation-adjusted GDP per person climbing nearly $27,000 in the U.S. vs an increase of less than $6,700 in Argentina).

By the way, this is not an endorsement of America’s economic policy. We have far too much statism in the United States.

But compared to Argentina, which generally has ranked in the bottom quartile for economic freedom, the United States has a more market-friendly track record.

To help make the bigger point about the importance of economic liberty, let’s now compare the United States with a jurisdiction that consistently has been ranked as the world’s freest economy.

Look at changes in economic output in America and Hong Kong from 1950 to the present. As you can see, Hong Kong started the period as a very poor jurisdiction, with per-capita output only about one-fourth of American levels.

But thanks to better policy, which led to faster growth compounding over several decades, Hong Kong has now caught up to the United States.

What’s most remarkable, if you look at the table, is that per-capita output over the past 65 years has soared by more than 1,275 percent in Hong Kong.

Needless to say, if the U.S. is out-performing Argentina and Hong Kong is out-performing the U.S., then a comparison of Hong Kong and Argentina would yield ever starker results.

I actually did something like that back in 2011 and the results further underscore that there’s a very powerful relationship between economic policy and economic performance.

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of what system is best for the less fortunate in society?

I suppose that’s a judgement call, but poor people obviously have higher incomes and more opportunity when there’s strong economic growth.

But as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, some people are so consumed by disdain for success that they’re willing to accept more suffering for poor people if they can simultaneously lower the incomes of rich people.

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As we get deeper into an election season, many politicians feel compelled to discuss how to deal with poverty.  And some of them may even be serious about trying to improve the system.

This hopefully will lead to big-picture discussions of key issues, such as why the poverty rate stopped falling in the mid-1960s.

If so, it helps to look past the headline numbers and actually understand the scope of the problem.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute explains that the official poverty data from the Census Bureau overstates the number of poor people.

…the official poverty rate is a positive embarrassment today. The poverty rate manifestly cannot do the single thing it was intended for: to count the number of people in our country subsisting below a fixed and absolute “poverty line.” Among its many other shortcomings, this index implicitly assumes that a family’s annual reported income is identical to its spending power… But income and spending patterns no longer track for the lowest income strata in modern America. …the bottom quintile of US households spent 130% more than their reported pretax income. The disparity between spending and income levels for poorer Americans has been gradually widening over time.

Though the shortcomings of the Census Bureau sometimes largely don’t matter because advocates of bigger government arbitrarily choose different numbers that further exaggerate the degree of poverty in the United States.

In a column for National Review, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector exposes the dishonest tactic (promoted by the Obama Administration and used by the OECD) of measuring income differences instead of actual poverty.

The Left often claims that the U.S has a far higher poverty rate than other developed nations have. These claims are based on a “relative poverty” standard, in which being “poor” is defined as having an income below 50 percent of the national median. Since the median income in the United States is substantially higher than the median income in most European countries, these comparisons establish a higher hurdle for escaping from “poverty” in the U.S. than is found elsewhere.

Based on honest apples-to-apples numbers, the United States is just as capable as other developed nations of minimizing material deprivation.

A more meaningful analysis would compare countries against a uniform standard. …Garfinkel and his co-authors do exactly that. They measure the percentage of people in each country who fall below the poverty-income threshold in the U.S. ($24,008 per year for a family of four in 2014). The authors reasonably broaden the measure of income to include “non-cash” benefits such as food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and equivalent programs in other nations. They also subtract taxes paid by low-income families, which are heavy in Europe. …the differences in poverty according to this uniform standard were very small. For example, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 8.7 percent, while the average among other affluent countries was around 7.6 percent. The rate in Germany was 7.3 percent, and in Sweden, it was 7.5 percent. Using a slightly higher uniform standard set at 125 percent of the U.S. poverty-income thresholds, the authors find that the U.S. actually has a slightly lower poverty rate than other affluent countries.

These numbers probably disappoint leftists who want to believe that European nations are somehow more generous and more effective in dealing with poverty.

But Robert explains that advocates of smaller government and individual responsibility should not be happy because the federal government’s profligacy isn’t helping poor people become self sufficient.

It is, of course, a good thing that left-wing claims of widespread deprivation in the U.S. are inaccurate. But government welfare policy should be about more than shoveling out a trillion dollars per year in “free” benefits. When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he sought to decrease welfare dependence and increase self-sufficiency: the ability of family to support itself above poverty without the need for government handouts. By that score, the War on Poverty has been a $24 trillion flop. While self-sufficiency improved dramatically in the decades before the War on Poverty started, for the last 45 years, it has been at a standstill.

Robert Doar and Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute make a very similar point about the welfare state failing to promote self sufficiency.

Recently released data show that the official poverty rate was 14.8% in 2014, only slightly below the 15% in poverty in 1970. And this is despite large increases in federal spending on anti-poverty programs.  Spending on these programs has increased almost tenfold in constant dollars since the early 1970s and increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1972 to 3.8% in 2012… Where does this leave us? If helping people achieve self-sufficiency and be free of government assistance is the goal, the safety net has largely failed. But if reducing material hardship is the goal, it performs well.

I would make a very important change to the above passage. Doar and Rachidi write that the poverty rate hasn’t declined “despite large increases” in supposed anti-poverty spending. Based on the evidence, it would be more accurate to say that poverty has stayed high “because of large increases.”

Simply stated, when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Anyhow, all this matters for three reasons.

  • First, dependency is bad news for poor people, particularly when government subsidizes multi-generational poverty and unwed motherhood.
  • Second, the current welfare state is bad news for taxpayers, who are financing a $1 trillion income-redistribution system that fails in its most important task.
  • Third, the current system is bad news for the economy because millions of people are bribed to be out of the labor force, thus lowering potential output.

Let’s summarize what we know. The official poverty rate exaggerates the actual number of poor people by failing to properly measure income, but that may not matter much since proponents of more redistribution prefer to use dishonest numbers that are even more distorted.

And we also know that the welfare state is capable of redistributing lots of money, but also that it does a terrible job of promoting self sufficiency. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the case that massive levels of redistribution have had a negative effect.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Folks on the left want even more of the same. But why should we expect that to have any positive effect? Indeed, it’s more likely that an expansion of the welfare state will simply lure more people into lives of sloth and dependency.

Some people on the right want to replace the welfare state with a guaranteed or basic income. This has some theoretical appeal, but it is based on the very shaky assumption that politicians could be convinced to completely repeal all existing redistribution programs.

Which is why the most prudent and effective step is to simply get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income and let state and local governments decide how best to deal with the issue.

This federalism-based approach has several advantages.

  1. Since redistributing income is not listed as an enumerated power, ending Washington’s role would be consistent with the Constitution.
  2. This federalism model already has been successfully tested with welfare reform in the 1990s and it also is the core feature of proposals to block grant Medicaid.
  3. A state-based model is far more likely to result in the degree of experimentation, diversity, and innovation needed to discover how best to actually promote self sufficiency.

By the way, this federalist system may begin with block grants from the federal government (i.e., transfers of cash to state and local governments), but the ultimate goal should be to phase out such subsidies so that state and local governments are responsible for choosing how to raise funds and how to allocate them.

And once welfare is truly a responsibility of state and local governments, we have good evidence that this will lead to better policy.

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The biggest mistake of well-meaning leftists is that they place too much value on good intentions and don’t seem to care nearly as much about good results.

Pope Francis is an example of this unfortunate tendency. His concern for the poor presumably is genuine, but he puts ideology above evidence when he argues against capitalism and in favor of coercive government.

Here are some passages from a CNN report on the Pope’s bias.

Pope Francis makes his first official visit to the United States this week. There’s a lot of angst about what he might say, especially when he addresses Congress Thursday morning. …He’ll probably discuss American capitalism’s flaws, a theme he has hit on since the 1990s. Pope Francis wrote a book in 1998 with an entire chapter focused on “the limits of capitalism.” …Francis argued that…capitalism lacks morals and promotes selfish behavior. …He has been especially critical of how capitalism has increased inequality… He’s tweeted: “inequality is the root of all evil.” …he’s a major critic of greed and excessive wealth. …”Capitalism has been the cause of many sufferings…”

Wow, I almost don’t know how to respond. So many bad ideas crammed in so few words.

If you want to know why Pope Francis is wrong about capitalism and human well-being, these videos narrated by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey will explain how free markets have generated unimaginable prosperity for ordinary people.

But the Pope isn’t just wrong on facts. He’s also wrong on morality. This video by Walter Williams explains why voluntary exchange in a free-market system is far more ethical than a regime based on government coercion.

Very well stated. And I especially like how Walter explains that markets are a positive-sum game, whereas government-coerced redistribution is (at best) a zero-sum game.

Professor Williams wasn’t specifically seeking to counter the muddled economic views of Pope Francis, but others have taken up that challenge.

Writing for the Washington Post, George Will specifically addresses the Pope’s moral preening.

Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak… Francis deplores “compulsive consumerism,” a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire.

He specifically explains that people with genuine concern for the poor should celebrate industrialization and utilization of natural resources.

Poverty has probably decreased more in the past two centuries than in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels. Only economic growth has ever produced broad amelioration of poverty, and since growth began in the late 18th century, it has depended on such fuels. …The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in “absolute poverty” ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981.

So why doesn’t Pope Francis understand economics?

Perhaps because he learned the wrong lesson from his nation’s disastrous experiment with an especially corrupt and cronyist version of statism.

Francis grew up around the rancid political culture of Peronist populism, the sterile redistributionism that has reduced his Argentina from the world’s 14th highest per-capita gross domestic product in 1900 to 63rd today. Francis’s agenda for the planet — “global regulatory norms” — would globalize Argentina’s downward mobility.

Amen (no pun intended).

George Will is right that Argentina is not a good role model.

And he’s even more right about the dangers of “global norms” that inevitably would pressure all nations to impose equally bad levels of taxation and regulation.

Returning to the economic views of Pope Francis, the BBC asked for my thoughts back in 2013 and everything I said still applies today.

P.S. Let’s close by taking a look at a few examples of how the world is getting better thanks to capitalism.

We’ll start with an example of how China’s modest shift toward markets has generated huge reductions in poverty (h/t: Cato Institute).

Now let’s look at how a wealthier society is also a safer society (h/t: David Frum).

Or how about this remarkable measure of higher living standards (h/t: Mark Perry).

Here’s an amazing chart showing how something as basic as light used to be a luxury good but now is astoundingly inexpensive for the masses (h/t: Max Roser).

These are just a few random examples of how free markets, when not overly stifled by government, can produce amazing things for ordinary people.

We may not notice the results from one year to the next, but the results are remarkable when we examine data over longer periods of time.

And if our specific goal is to help the poor, there’s no question that economic growth is far more effective than government dependency.

Which is why I’ve explained that it’s better to be a poor person in a capitalist jurisdiction.

I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France. France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

P.P.S. Methinks Pope Francis would benefit from a discussion with Libertarian Jesus.

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