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. Read more

Sen. Lee, community leaders hold poverty roundtable at Sutherland offices

Senator Mike Lee holds a discussion at Sutherland offices.

Senator Mike Lee holds a discussion on Monday about poverty-fighting strategies.

Utah Senator Mike Lee met with several Utah community leaders at Sutherland Institute’s office in Salt Lake City earlier this week to discuss issues surrounding poverty and potential legislation to address these issues.

The roundtable included representatives from Utah Department of Workforce Services, Calvary Baptist Church, Utah Food Bank, 4th Street Clinic, United Way and Standing Together.

With Sen. Lee, the group discussed changes in federal and state policy to remove barriers that trap people in poverty and make upward mobility all but impossible.  Topics included welfare reform, access to quality affordable health care, removing anti-marriage biases in federal policy, ways to help keep families intact, increasing educational opportunities, and Medicaid reform.

Click here to watch the video of the roundtable.

Fight poverty with community: 'Bring them in'

Holding_HandsIn a beautifully phrased speech last month, Sen. Mike Lee laid out an optimistic, conservative view of America’s fight against poverty:

What makes America exceptional – and life worth living – is not simply individual freedom, but the heroic, empowering communities that free individuals form.

Free enterprise and civil society operate in the natural human space – between the isolated individual and the impersonal state – where we live, and love, and flourish… where everyone can earn a good living and build a good life… where the strong and the vulnerable alike can pursue their happiness, and find it … together. …

[I]n America’s original war on poverty, government did not give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other people. …

Properly considered, then, the war on poverty is not so much about lifting people up. It’s about bringing people in.

Read more

Hey kid, want to go from rags to riches? Move to S.L.

Happy_group_of_children_playingWhere do you think a child from a low-income family would have the best chance of moving into the upper 20 percent of the “national income distribution”? New York? Seattle? Las Vegas?

It’s the Salt Lake City metro area.

In this post, W. Bradford Wilcox points out a recent study by Harvard and UC-Berkeley:

[O]ut of the largest 100 metropolitan regions in the country, the Salt Lake City area is best at promoting absolute economic mobility for lower-income children and embodying the Horatio Alger story.

He adds,

What accounts for the area’s success? The study does not specifically focus on Salt Lake’s comparative advantage for kids, but it does suggest two factors that are key to fostering income mobility for children around the United States: family and civil society. Specifically, the Harvard-Berkeley study that the New York Times called the “most detailed portrait of income mobility in the United States” found that the most powerful (negative) correlate of such mobility was the share of single moms in a region. This means that children were most likely to realize the American dream when they came from regions—like the Salt Lake City area—with comparatively strong families.

Read the rest of Wilcox’s post here at the Family Studies blog. He also adapted it for the Deseret News here.

Poverty’s elephant in the room

One core advantage of religious and other private charity over government welfare is that it is more likely to address the elephant in the room in discussions of poverty: marriage and family structure.

The Department of Workforce Services report on intergenerational poverty, released Sept. 28, notes correlations between intergenerational poverty and family structure:

  • “One in every 20 intergenerational teen girls (ages 13 to 17) was pregnant during SFY 12.”
  • “Most intergenerational adults are unmarried females with children.”

This is consistent with a body of empirical data that establishes three points.

First, fragile family structure, especially the failure of marriage at the outset of childbearing or divorce afterwards, is associated with increased poverty risk. Read more

Intergenerational poverty, taxation and the Scrooge response

Earlier this week I spoke at an important conference on intergenerational poverty in Salt Lake City. Karen Crompton of Voices for Utah Children and State Senator Stuart Reid organized the conference and invited my participation as a follow-up to Senator Reid’s legislation on the topic.

My remarks drew on a passage from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge was invited to to “make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” Scrooge’s response?

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.” Read more

Utah’s Reid shows leadership on intergenerational poverty

Utah State Sen. Stuart Reid

Utah State Senator Stuart Reid is providing important leadership on a crucial issue — intergenerational poverty. The 1990s saw a major effort to reform public welfare through work requirements for welfare recipients. This effort had merit, but Senator Reid is proposing something more foundational.

The intergenerational poverty effort is based on an important distinction described in Senate Bill 37, approved in the 2012 legislative session. The bill notes there are two kinds of poverty. “Situational poverty” is poverty “generally traceable to a specific incident or time period within the lifetime of a person,” which doesn’t continue with the next generation. “Intergenerational poverty” is “poverty in which two or more successive generations of a family continue in the cycle of poverty and government dependence.”

It seems obvious that these two kinds of poverty need to be addressed differently. The key at this point is to understand the scope and nature of the challenge of intergenerational poverty.

We know that certain factors associated with poverty like unwed parenting and divorce are more likely when one’s parents experienced these things. One study looking at long-term data concluded: “Women who experienced a spell of welfare receipt during childhood are almost three times as likely to become welfare participants as adults as are women whose parents did not receive welfare.”

Senator Reid’s legislation calls for a report on Utah intergenerational poverty data each September, so we will learn more about the scope of the problem in Utah soon.

The next step is to determine how civil society can respond to the challenge and whether there are things the government is doing or not doing that contribute to the problem. Senator Reid has explained that a key element of the response is going to be centering our responses on children who experience poverty to ensure they have every opportunity to end the cycle of dependence.

Senator Reid’s leadership on this issue is greatly appreciated.

Defining necessity


I have seen an image going around Facebook that will make you think twice about your holiday spending. It juxtaposes a photo of obviously starving children, holding out their hands, with a photo of harried shoppers with arms and carts overflowing with electronic goods and toys. The caption says “DEFINE NECESSITY.”

Ouch – a punch to the gut. (Even for someone who’d rather pull out her eyelashes than go shopping on Black Friday.)

[pullquote]We should probably choose to give to those in need, whether in Africa or in our own communities, but ideally using the most direct means possible.[/pullquote]Then the devil’s advocate in me whispered: If those women weren’t buying those consumer goods, would that help the starving children? Is it possible that the United States’ huge appetite for spending somehow helps the Third World?

Well, perhaps. Many economists with far more education and experience than I have wrestled with similar questions. The world economy is incredibly complex, and various barriers to free trade certainly play a role in extreme poverty. Two other factors also loom large: political corruption and war. Read more

Costs of Dependency


Like the poor, the debate over what to do about poverty we will always have with us. Recently, unsustainable federal budget deficits have reawakened the controversy because it now seems clear that (since payments to individuals make up two-thirds of the federal budget) entitlement reform has to be considered.

The caricature of those who insist that cuts in entitlement programs must be made is that they are cold and unfeeling, looking out only for their own interests and not the least concerned by the less fortunate living around them. Perhaps there are some who fit this profile, but very likely not many. Read more

Stepping up as conservatives to help Utahns in need


While I was waiting for a flight out of Salt Lake City, a young man, waiting for the same flight, sat down next to me and initiated a conversation. I soon found out that “Theo” was headed to meet his mom, whom he hadn’t seen in a while. I also learned he has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. I asked him how his disability was manifest and he said he struggled socially – which I thought was interesting because he had initiated our conversation. He said he used to have a hard time looking people in the eyes when he talked with them. He stammered a bit, almost nervous, but we had a delightful conversation. When we arrived at our destination he introduced me to his mom.

“Theo” lives in Birmingham, Ala., but his divorced parents both live in New Orleans. I asked why he lived away from his folks, and he replied, “Because that’s where I could get treatment for Asperger’s …New Orleans has nothing.” What “Theo” meant was that New Orleans didn’t have any public assistance programs to help him, whereas Birmingham did. Read more