Poverty

Expanding Government Power Won't Defeat Poverty

Conservatives would no doubt use government differently than liberals, but libertarians have good reason to doubt that the results will be better.

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In the run-up to the 2016 election, Ohio-based writer J.D. Vance became a national celebrity for his book—and now a movie—called "Hillbilly Elegy," which detailed the social dysfunction among his kin in Appalachia. The book became a media sensation because it helped explain the rise of Trumpism, which was born out of endemic poverty in rural white America.

Leftists viewed the tome as poverty porn—an effort to blame the poor for their predicament. Indeed, Vance wrote about "too many young men immune to hard work." He wrote about the cultural aspects of poverty—rampant drug abuse and out-of-wedlock births. Even after people in his Kentucky hometown made all the wrong choices, they felt like someone had victimized them.

Before the last election, I ventured into Appalachia to attend my mother-in-law's funeral. Along the two-hour drive through winding two-lane roads, we saw an uncountable number of Trump signs. We talked politics in hushed tones—realizing that our relatives weren't eager to hear from out-of-touch Californians. Looking at her declining hometown, we saw what Vance was describing.

The good news is that conservatives are now paying attention to the issue of poverty, which had long been a focus among progressives. The bad news is populist Republicans have embraced many of the same misbegotten reflexes that have energized Democrats. They've forgotten that poverty isn't only about material deprivation. They seem to have forgotten that government can do more harm than good.

In recent years, Vance has become an advocate for an activist style of conservatism. In a 2019 speech touching on his book's theme, he took a gentle jab at libertarians: "Libertarians are not heartless…I think they often recognize, but they are so uncomfortable with political power, or so skeptical of whether political power can accomplish anything, that they don't want to actually use it solve or even address some of these problems."

Well, yes, libertarians remain skeptical about using political power. It's our defining characteristic. We've watched politicians use government to "solve" poverty, homelessness and other problems—and yet those problems haven't gotten much better. No one looks at Lyndon Johnson's 1960s-era War on Poverty, which marshalled the full force of the federal behemoth, and ruminates over its success.

The problem isn't solely the cost of those policies (trillions of dollars in public spending over several decades), but the erosion of self-sufficiency in the inner city and now rural America. Conservatives would no doubt use government differently than liberals, but libertarians have good reason to doubt that the results will be better.

I've often recounted on these pages the follies of California Democrats, who believe the key to lifting people out of poverty is increasing government transfer payments, raising taxes to fund new government agencies and imposing new regulations that force businesses to pay higher wages or provide employees with more benefits.

As an entertaining aside, Gov. Gavin Newsom's new "special advisor for economic mobility and opportunity" is former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, whose claim to fame is his program to provide a Universal Basic Income—direct payments that recipients can use any way that they choose. Everyone likes extra walking-around money, but this is no blueprint for long-term economic uplift.

Those policies, along with other progressive priorities—featuring a host of environmental and slow-growth rules—have mainly ramped up the cost of living here to preposterous proportions. Even if a working-class family has the best work ethic in the world, it could never afford the tab for a median-priced home in any of California's coastal metropolises.

As a result, our state has the highest poverty rate in the nation, using the Census Bureau's cost-of-living-adjusted model. Californians pay more than people in other parts of the country for virtually everything. Thanks in part to our regulations, electric customers pay as much as 80 percent more than the national average, according to a new CalMatters report.

It's simple math. Government-mandated increases in the costs of the basics—housing, utilities, taxes, food, transportation—mean that people must earn more to stay above the poverty line. Excessive labor regulations make it harder for businesses to create new jobs. People deserve a chance to make their way in the world, and not just tap a larger trove of handouts.

Maddeningly, populist conservatives haven't detailed a specific agenda (beyond tariffs, which are basically large tax increases on businesses, which drive up prices for consumers), but excuse me for thinking that their policies will have unintended consequences, too.

Obviously, a high cost of living isn't the only thing that keeps people down. Appalachia remains poor even though in my wife's hometown one can still buy a decent home for less than the cost of a new car. Now that everyone seems serious about addressing poverty, it's time to readjust our thinking—and recognize that handing people money and giving bureaucrats power isn't the solution.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.

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  1. Wait… You mean Trump did NOT solve poverty by scapegoating cheap Chinese imports and illegal subhuman as well as legal semi-human immigrants?!?! Color me SHOCKED!

    Appalachians (and their kin) will solve the problem in 2024 by electing Alex Jones as the next POTUS! Alex Jones will do these same things, but do them RIGHT this time! Jonesing for Jones, Yeah!!!

    1. Lowest unemployment since 1960’s
      Strongest US Dollar Value.

      No need to be “shocked” – Trump did very very well..
      Did he solve poverty in CA where Democrats ruled? Nope; Of course that’s because Trump accepted the federal had boundaries.

      Now; Biden. Rising debt, failing economy, hyperinflation. You mean Democrats did NOT stop throwing the USA into a depression by massive spending and dictation?!?! Color me SHOCKED!

      This is getting predictable.
      FDR – 12yr Great Depression
      Obama – 8yr Recession
      Biden – ????????????

      1. In Appalachia, the liberal solution (well, OK, one of them) is more and more, and ALWAYS more, $200 / hour expert therapy for the poor and drug-addicted. Against Alex Jones for POTUS on the “R” side in 2024, I am expecting that the “D” side will put up for POTUS… I give you… Chris Bathum, expert therapist!

        ALL poverty-striken ones are innocent victims!!! There IS no such thing as an undeserving poor person! All addicts have a “mental problem” that can be properly treated by a shrink or therapist, and they should be forced to get Obama-care-mandated, taxpayer-funded drug addiction (or other) “therapy” from the likes of “Chris Bathum”, see http://www.malibutimes.com/news/article_62b16ee4-2246-11e8-b456-1f240b332af0.html ,
        Malibu ‘Rehab Mogul’ Guilty on 31 Criminal Counts
        Christopher Bathum’s rap sheet includes a long list of charges, from fraud to forcible rape.
        Your tax and health-insurance money at work!!!

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      2. He wrote: “As a result, our state has the highest poverty rate in the nation, using the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-adjusted model.”

        The flaw is that the Census Bureau ignores most government benefits when calculating poverty. See Phil Gramm’s recent column in the WSJ.

      3. Ten of the last eleven recessions started under Republican presidents. Every Republican president since the 1880’s has presided over the start of a recession. It is Republicans who get us into recessions.

        The Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009 started under President Bush. It had lasted over 13 months when Bush left office. It lasted only another five months under President Obama.

        The current recession started last February under President Trump. Trump presided over eleven months of the recession. I suspect it will end soon under President Biden.

        1. LMAO… You lefties really do live in your own land of massive liar delusions. When will you ever decide to pull your head out-of your *sses??

          Frankly; idiots don’t bother me until they get the *power* to stuff their idiocy in at the national government and dictate idiocy everywhere by Gov-Gun point. Why don’t all you *ss-heads elect Biden/Harris as your city or state leader? Seems you did so well with Detroit…

  2. You make some good points but I’m surprised you didn’t point out that maybe Cali could be better off (and you taxed less hopefully) if you weren’t forced to subsidize the hell out of taker states in the Union.

    1. My hovercraft is full of eels.

    2. That’s some funny stuff, fruit boy.

    3. CA and its ilk hold sway in Congress. They’re forcing it on themselves, shitlunches.

    4. In order to do that you would have to radically overhaul both the income tax and old age entitlement systems, both in directions you’re likely to oppose.

    5. How so? The only way to do that would be to cut federal income taxes or scale back social welfare programs. Which of those courses do you prefer?

    6. don’t worry, the other 49 will catch up fast when the pension bailouts start (and they have)

  3. “but excuse me for thinking that their policies will have unintended consequences, too.”

    Sorry; there really isn’t any excuse for your deceitful and well-established by the article; completely UN-founded bias.

    Almost ALL Republicans and Libertarians are really on the same page on these issues no matter how the author tries to taint the Republicans. Seems the new social-fad on reason is TDS. Article after article ‘word’ bashing Republicans and Trump with NOT a single point of substance to back it.

    I mean good grief; If you’re going to bash the GOP at least bring up the Cares Act (The only one they mistakenly supported) which was written 87% by Democrats — At least, the very least; Demonstrate a Reasonable Point even if it’s the only point you could make instead of ‘gangster’ mentality just using entirely prejudice stain names — “rural white America”, “rise of Trumpism”… WTF! This is lefty idiocy brainwashing in practice.

  4. “Defeat poverty”? That’s not the primary economic objective of Koch / Reason libertarianism. Instead, our goal is to make billionaires — especially our benefactor Charles Koch — even richer.

    In fact Koch / Reason libertarianism arguably seeks to increase the poverty rate. After all, our open borders agenda will eventually turn the entire country into a single-party Democratic state like California. And California has one of the highest poverty rates in the country when you adjust for cost of living.

    #LibertariansFor50Californias

    1. Don’t quit your day job.

  5. The article that you link to “proving” that the War on Poverty failed actually helps demonstrate its success:

    “The actual living conditions of households labeled as poor by Census are surprising to most people. According to the government’s own surveys, 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning; nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television; half have a personal computer; 40 percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Three-quarters own a car or truck; nearly a third has two or more vehicles.

    “Ninety-six percent of poor parents state that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. Some 82 percent of poor adults reported that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year.”

    Liberals constantly overstate poverty levels because they want to spend more. Conservatives constantly understate it because they want to spend less. Contrary to libertarian ideology, there is nothing wrong with deliberate economic redistribution of wealth; free markets are “efficient” (most of the time), but they aren’t moral. The big problems with liberals is that they want to spend money shoring up sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, where efficiency is increasing, reducing the demand for workers, while using their obsession with “the environment” (and property values) to prevent people from relocating to areas where the economy is growing.

    1. “Contrary to libertarian ideology, there is nothing wrong with deliberate economic redistribution of wealth”

      Nothing particularly moral about that either. Get up off of your damn knees.

      1. Taking stuff at gun point and calling it “compassion” is not moral.

        1. We’ll give you so much compassion, you’re just gonna die!

    2. He wrote: “As a result, our state has the highest poverty rate in the nation, using the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-adjusted model.”

      The flaw is that the Census Bureau ignores most government benefits when calculating poverty. See Phil Gramm’s recent column in the WSJ.

  6. Libertarianism as political philosophy: rejection of coercive control by governments.

    Libertarianism as personal philosophy: reluctance to impose my ethics and preferences on others.

    Now, if I had to defy those philosophies in order to “do something” about poverty, I would much rather prevent it than mitigate the consequences. In other words, I could easier accept controls on personal choices that keep people from poverty than mandatory redistribution policies.

    Why is letting people, especially young people, choose to avoid earning a living more “free” than forcing others to work more in order to support the slackers?

    1. Controlling personal choice causes more harm by denying people options to get out of proverty more than it protects them from the choices that lead to poverty.

  7. Humanity will always have proverty. As long as people are poor because of their own personal choices and are free to make new choices to escape it, poverty is not a bad thing. Now if people are trapped in poverty by the government boot, then something needs to be done.

    1. Unfortunately, the “something” that’s done usually ends up with a more expensive government boot.

      1. Unfortunately so. Usually because the person wearing the boot is charged with removing it.

  8. Places like that exist everywhere. Appalachia just tends to have a lot more of them because of Federal “help”.

    There are two problems. One is the culture, fostered by Federal insistence on “helping”. It’s an easy trap that anyone can fall into, regardless of race or ethnicity. Help to those in distress is good, but too much and it becomes a crutch, and then an excuse, and soon you have a new generation with zero work effort only the desire to get on disability.

    The other problem is the real world. Times change. Economies change. Trying to desperately cling onto a past that no longer exists is not good. I love small town family farms. But they don’t really exist anymore except as hipster hobbies. The family farms I know are larger concerns. Still single family, but not just five acres and a rusty tractor. Times change and you gotta change with it.

    The idea that tiny farming and coal mining company towns are the only thing Appalachia can do is bullshit. You don’t need a giant Foxconn boondoggle, you just need to think outside the box. And Federal government plus the welfare culture makes that hard. Times change and that does mean modern infrastructure. All that bandwidth and technology to stream Game of Porn into hillbilly homes is the same bandwidth and technology to run a modern business. The rest of the nation is figuring out how to work from home during a pandemic. It can be done. Just one idea out of my head.

    The big idea of economics is that human beings are the ultimate resource. But that resource is being left to rot in so many places because the politics say only a Big Man in D.C. can save them. That’s the same attitude that dragged Native Americans down for two centuries. That’s the same attitude that led to crumbling ghettos and housing projects. That’s the same attitude that says “Gosh, the steel mill closed, I guess I’ll just have to watch Oprah for the rest of my life.”

    1. Good comment. Towns with one or two major employers can be devastated when those employers fail. How one responds is the question. I’ve been reading about the history of a town where one branch of my family comes from. It was the leading cigar manufacturer in the Eastern U.S. for twenty years. Then the cigar workers went on strike and within ten years, the percentage of workers in that town in the cigar business fell from 45% to 7% as cigar makers turned to automation. But cigar making involved lots of women working with their hands, so clothing entrepreneurs came to town to use their labor. By WWII, the town’s clothing manufacturers were turning out 35,000 men’s trousers per week.
      Then the clothing business moved elsewhere, but the stubborn proud Dutchmen in town looked for other opportunities: a large manufacturing instrument maker, a regional hospital, food processing, residential real estate expansion. They refused to become a welfare recipient sinkhole and are still a vibrant community.

    2. Spot on statements like this tend to get bogged down in “blame the victim” and “learn to code” snark, but it’s really the only way forward: figure out what you’re good at and how to sell it to a market beyond your home town.

      Appalachia is a giant welfare trap, but the only politically realistic path out of welfarism is tinkering around the edges. Maybe some kind of steadily reducing mechanism for all the handouts might work.

      1. Yesterday I read that the governor of West Virginia wants to abolish the state income tax. He states that a small increase in sales tax with a small increase in luxury (anything over 5k) tax could completely fund the state government. It’ll be interesting to see if that takes place. I know a ton of people in Maryland and DC would love to live in a cheap, beautiful state like West Va. Economic growth and individual discipline is what pulls people out of poverty.

    3. “All that bandwidth and technology to stream Game of Porn into hillbilly homes is the same bandwidth and technology to run a modern business”

      Appalachia & the rural south is famous for its high-speed Internet Infrastructure

  9. A number of good comments here, some not so good. I think the idea that the “war on poverty failed” is wrong. Many people got opportunities that did not exist before. We need to see these as not a single effort by a as a series of successive efforts each adapted to those not helped by previous effort. Many of the most successful charities and humanitarian efforts tailor solution to problems. That may be something we need to more often. That does not just mean throwing money at a problem and does offer opportunity for libertarians to offer none governmental solutions.

  10. They could all make bank selling moonshine if it weren’t for the government monopoly on alcohol.

  11. I dunno, I think the NEXT trillion bucks will be the one government spends “responsibly” and “for the people”, so we might as well give it to them, right?

  12. Good article. But Reason et al are sadly echo chambers of ever diminishing new ideas on how to work with or better yet, strangle the Leviathan .

    In a 50/50 country there is little chance or hope that even a smidge of real libertarianism might get some traction. Both parties offer the same remedies for the same problems: more and more of what doesn’t work. If the Trumpites really had a grasp of their beloved swamp then the deficit and debt would have shrunk. And Joe? Ha. No, not gonna happen.

  13. I loved JD Vance’s book, but his book focused on his growing up during the 1990s and 2000s (when opioid pill mills were devastating rural Appalachia).

    During the past decade, natural gas fracking has revitalized Appalachia with billions of dollars, creating tens of thousands of good paying jobs and several thousand new millionaires (via gas drilling rights) out of landowners who used to be poor farmers.

    Joe Manchin knows that natural gas fracking is the key to WV’s economic vitality (and higher pay for workers in WV, PA and OH) for at least the next several decades (unless the AOC/Biden Green Deal becomes law).

    Regarding rising poverty rates in CA, it appears that folks in CA don’t really care about that, as they keep voting for left wing Democrats who continue increasing taxes, imposing costly and ineffective regulations, and then imposed disastrous lock downs this past year.

    1. “creating…several thousand new millionaires (via gas drilling rights) out of landowners who used to be poor farmers.”

      I know one such family. The father moved out to southern California with his mother, daughter, and nephew. They are doing great, though they constantly have to be on the lookout for scheming bankers who want to separate them from their money. Or did I just dream that…

  14. Greenhut blew any credibility he had over the last 4 years. Go away Greenhut.

  15. “Well, yes, libertarians remain skeptical about using political power. It’s our defining characteristic.”

    It’s your defining hypocrisy. How do you plan to change all these laws and policies? Polite suggestion?

    No, you want to legislate, same as everyone else. That means using government force to get your way. The real difference between you and every other thiever is that you don’t think the people ought to get too much of a say about what’s done to them.

    1. Repealing a bad law isn’t a use of force, it’s reducing the use of force and increasing the reliance on voluntary mutual agreements.

      1. Horseshit. Changing policy is changing who gets the government guns pointed at them, whether you’re adding words or subtracting.

        If that’s too philosophical for you, consider that you cannot implement a libertarian society merely by repealing laws. That’s an infantile claim.

        Yet even if you could, you’d do what? Repeal social security but keep tax shelters. That’s imposing poverty on millions of people, cementing the protection of the luxuries of the few, and patting yourself on the back for all the good you did.

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