Conservative focus on helping vulnerable is long overdue – Conservatively Speaking, 9/2/14

Senator Mike Lee holds a discussion at Sutherland offices about poverty.

Senator Mike Lee holds a discussion at Sutherland offices about poverty.

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

For conservatives, poverty and eroding economic security for middle income families are not simply social problems, but moral problems as well. Beyond the economic and budget struggles poverty creates, we have an “obligation to help the vulnerable,” to borrow from Arthur Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute. And the lack of ability to enter and remain in the middle class diminishes the meaning and value of freedom for society, not to mention inviting greater dangers by suggesting to people that a free society is perhaps not in their best interests.

Because of the social and moral problems presented by poverty and middle-class insecurity, various political and intellectual conservatives have begun proposing new policy approaches to these issues. For instance, the American Enterprise Institute recently published a compilation of work in a booklet called “Poverty in America, and What to Do About It.” Congressman Paul Ryan published a draft report from the House Budget Committee titled “Expanding Opportunity in America.” And our own U.S. Senator Mike Lee just released a booklet titled “An Agenda for Our Time” detailing his approach to what he calls “the opportunity crisis” faced by the poor and middle class in America.

The renewed focus on poverty and middle-class issues on the right is long overdue. While charitable giving and volunteerism are indisputably good things espoused by conservatives, events such as the recession and the weak economic recovery illustrate that they simply are not enough in the face of a weak economy. A consequence of conservatives’ praise of markets and civil society has been to leave welfare policy largely to the political left, which has turned into unending promises for economic salvation, combined with an unending inability to do much for the poor.

In 1968 and 2008, for instance, the percent of Americans living below 125 percent of poverty was almost the same, coming at about 18 percent based on figures from the Census Bureau. In between those years it has never dropped below 15 percent. In short, for all the sanctimonious railing from the left that the right cares nothing for the poor, when the left has been in power its policies and governance have done embarrassingly little to actually help the poor get out of poverty.

The same is true of the left’s policies and middle-income families. For example, President Obama enjoyed significant political majorities in Congress in the early years of his administration, and has scored several victories on significant economic policy, like the stimulus package and tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Yet despite these liberal policy victories, 95 percent of all gains from the current economic recovery have accrued to the “top 1 percent” of the income distribution, according to an economic scholar at UC-Berkeley – which is not exactly a bastion of conservative economics and politics.

It is this gap between what is promised and what is delivered by the left that conservatives should seek to fill. Rather than pushing for minimum wage increases, which do not produce any statistically significant evidence that they help “reduce financial, housing, health, or food insecurity” according to the Employment Policies Institute, we should push for expanding successful policies like the Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits, which even left-of-center groups like the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have recognized as beneficial for the poor and middle class. Rather than exploring ways to expand Medicaid and welfare programs, we should seek to reform them so that they provide people with life transformation, material relief, and economic opportunity – the things which the poor themselves say in personal interviews are their greatest needs, writes Arthur Brooks.

It is policies centered around actually helping real people solve real problems that create a genuine hope for improving the lives and opportunities of poor and middle-income families. Whether it be in reform of taxes, education, health care, or welfare policy, conservatives should understand what they are for when it comes to the poor and middle class, not simply what they are against. If we are serious about extending the American Dream, it is conservative social justice that will provide real opportunities to vulnerable people with a desire to make a better life for themselves – not railing about income inequality and the heartlessness of Republican politicians.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Derek Monson. Thanks for listening.

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