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.


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.