I recently read a couple of articles which, although they validated my skepticism about government assistance, also deeply troubled me.
The first was an op-ed piece in the New York Times by liberal columnist Nicholas Kristoff, who I will give credit for occasionally acknowledging truths that go against the conventional wisdom of the circles in which he resides.
The last time he wrote something that validated conservatives and, I’m sure, exorcised liberals who are intellectually and emotionally incapable of positively crediting their ideological opposites, it was his confession that conservatives are indeed more generous with their time, talent and treasure when it comes to charitable giving than his fellow liberals.
In his more recent article, he confessed that many government programs designed to fight poverty have actually perpetuated it, and this revelation greatly disheartened him:
This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.
Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.
Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.
Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.
I’m no expert on domestic poverty. But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.
He goes on to tout – wait for it – a non-profit, non-government program, Save the Children, as “a model of what does work” to combat poverty in its nascent stages, namely as it affects children.
Good for him. His ability to examine and give credence to thoughts and ideas outside of his worldview is the kind of attitude we need, because it will eventually lead to conversation rather than confrontation over the crushing problems of our times.
The other article that gave me pause was written by Peter Cove, a man who served on the front lines in the War on Poverty at its commencement and, like a soldier discovering the true horror of war, realized that programs ostensibly designed to move people out of poverty were in fact keeping them there.
He learned, to his chagrin, that an entire class of activists and interest groups actually benefitted from expanding, rather than reducing, the numbers of people receiving public assistance:
But the government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither city hall nor I comprehended that the “community action” organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls. War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more—and more expensive—welfare programs. For instance, the National Welfare Rights Organization urged single black mothers to protest the welfare system’s eligibility restrictions, and the organization’s goal was to flood the system with new clients.
Cove determined that work, not public assistance, was the answer to eliminating poverty:
Work maximizes a person’s capacity to achieve economic self-reliance. Work socializes people and instills a sense of personal responsibility in them. Work connects behavior and consequences. And it permits people, especially men, to obtain the admiration and respect of their spouses and children by supporting them.
Cove’s experiences with pilot welfare-to-work programs, which emphasized immediate job placement over training and education programs favored by government “anti-poverty” initiatives, led him to establish a for-profit firm, America Works, that takes supposedly unemployable people and puts them to work, breaking the generational cycle of dependency.
Cove “raised $1 million in start-up money, betting that a for-profit company could do the job better than government welfare agencies could and simultaneously bring accountability to a field that desperately needed it.” The company doesn’t make a dime until a candidate is successfully placed in a job and is employed for at least four months.
Despite skepticism about their for-profit model and resistance from the public sector welfare bureaucracy, the company has been very successful in ending poverty for thousands of people previously thought to be “unemployable”:
In the past 27 years, America Works has placed more than 250,000 poor people, with an average of five to six years on the rolls, in private-sector jobs, with an average starting wage of $10 per hour plus benefits. In our New York program, to take one example, more than half of these new workers were still on the job after 180 days. The employers that we have worked with include prestigious companies, such as Time Warner, Cablevision, Aramark, J. C. Penney, and American Building Maintenance Industries. Most of these employers keep coming back, asking for more of our referrals.
Single parents, drug and alcohol abusers, the mentally handicapped, the homeless, military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, and others with disabilities have succeeded admirably in a wide variety of jobs and have lifted themselves out of a lifetime of poverty.
Peter Cove’s successes influenced the federal welfare reforms of the late 1990s, and despite dire predictions that “children will be sleeping on the gratings,” 7.5 million people dropped off the welfare rolls and into the workplace within a decade.
Despite the success of the welfare-to-work model, even today the federal government seeks to neuter it by replacing the mandatory work requirements with more nebulous and demonstrably less effective training and education programs, which have failed to incentivize the chronic poor and inoculate them with the discipline and work ethic they need to break away from poverty.
One of my goals in 2013 is to spark a new conversation about poverty and true "social justice," making it clear that miring human beings in a permanent state of dependence on public aid, whatever the intentions of the aid providers and their advocates, is not compassionate, but is in fact cruel.
Entitlement has not just condemned the poor to lives of permanent despair, but has also compelled far too many of us to accept mere existence when, as children of God and Americans, we once aspired to so much more.
Even the 21th century version of the American Dream is mediocre, describing a life where everyone works for someone else, and they have just enough to have a house, a car, and take a vacation every now and again:
"If you’re willing to put in the work, the idea is that you should be able to raise a family and own a home; not go bankrupt because you got sick, because you’ve got some health insurance that helps you deal with those difficult times; that you can send your kids to college; that you can put some money away for retirement...
"That’s all most people want...Folks don’t have unrealistic ambitions. They do believe that if they work hard they should be able to achieve that small measure of an American Dream.” ~ President Obama
Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I don't think any of us should limit ourselves to such small dreams if our minds and hearts steer us to something bigger. The middle class ought to be a launching pad, not a destination.
Moreover, our culture’s embrace of mere existence as the pinnacle of our hopes and dreams has an ugly side to it, and that is our demonization of success. While there are some whose success has indeed come at the expense of others, this by no means characterizes the vast majority of people in America who excel, and we do our national culture a disservice when we denigrate the achievers who see more to themselves, and seek and seize opportunity wherever they can find it.
They are why we became the greatest nation in world history, and if we truly wish to reestablish that greatness, not out of hubris but because it represents all of us being everything we can possibly be, we need them to be encouraged and lifted up, not torn down.
Arthur Brooks makes the argument that entrepreneurism is practically encoded in Americans' DNA, since everyone who willingly immigrated to America, uprooting themselves from their home countries to come to a strange land, was primed to take risks and seize opportunities:
Think about it. Immigrants tend to be entrepreneurial, willing to give up security and familiarity for the possibility of prosperity and success. . . . Only a small minority of people from any particular community tend to migrate away from their homeland. . . . America's vast success might be explained in part by our genetic predisposition to embrace risks with potentially explosive rewards.
There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, taking risks and breathing the rarefied air of great possibilities. That is who we are as Americans or, at least, who we once were.
Perhaps our success as a nation made us too comfortable, and perhaps the generations who worked so hard to build this nation did too much for us, not wanting us to suffer as they did, yet unintentionally robbing us of the good character that hard work, delayed gratification, and self-sacrifice would have instilled within us.
I believe we need to reclaim our entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic, and I don't mean that just in an economic sense, but as a way of life. As Arthur Brooks argues, earned success brings with it rewards that far exceed monetary wealth, and the great Frederick Douglass, a self-made man if ever there was one, said it best:
My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.
We’ve all endured much in the past few years, and I am no exception. Despite unemployment, debt and financial struggle, however, I still have big dreams for myself and my family, and I won’t let people or circumstances steal those dreams from me.
The new year begins tomorrow. Will you reject the mediocrity of the revisionist American Dream and help to restore, for your own sake and the sake of your family, community and nation, the American Dream as it once was? That’s a resolution that can revive a nation.