In his far-reaching effort, known as “A Better Way”, to define a coherent, conservative legislative agenda, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan brought together the talent and put in the time to chart a path forward in the War on Poverty.
For too long, conservatives have allowed the War on Poverty to be waged by leftists, bureaucracy, and those whose favorite part of the Constitution is the taxing and spending clause. The product of these misguided technocrats couldn’t signal a more resounding defeat. They’ve waged a battle in which success was measured by inputs rather than outcomes. Rather than focusing on helping people, they’ve chosen to pride themselves on the financial commitment, upwards a trillion dollars, that they’ve made to do so.
When you take a step back from the trench warfare of politicized headlines and poll-tested talking points, conservative principles provide the ideal framework for combating poverty and lifting people up. American conservatism is built on the belief that every person is granted inalienable rights from God, a right to determine our own futures, and the government is our communal agreement to protect those rights. Our philosophy values the dignity of individual achievement, family life, community concern, and faith. Though we accept that all people are flawed, we dismiss the liberal, technocratic notion that the flawed nature of people disappears when they are allowed to hide behind an agency acronym.
While the political discourse would rather focus on personal rivalry and political vendetta, House Republicans have bridged the divide between these principles and the fickle, dull world of public policy.
Centrality of Work
The first component of the plan is the centrality of work. The best way to lift people up out of poverty is to tether them to the economy through a job. Beyond that, the soft skills associated with work, such as the expectation of punctuality, respect, and teamwork, are necessary for career advancement. Though the Left propagates the myth of “dead end jobs,” low wage employment which provides no wage premium through experience, the academic literature is not friendly to them on the subject.
The concrete proposals associated with the centrality of work draw inspiration from the remarkably successful 1996 welfare reform law passed. The plan would expand Temporary Assistance for Needy Families-style work requirements for able-bodied adults to other forms of government assistance, such as housing and nutrition programs. Focusing in on the fulfillment of family responsibilities, job training options would be made more accessible to parents owing child support due to lack of custody, building on the child support enforcement components of the 1996 laws. The mission of work centrality is clear: our goal is self-sufficiency.
We all own a share of the government. Actions by the government shouldn’t feel impersonal, heavy-handed, and beyond our control for that leads to a large gap between the government and the governed. Unfortunately, that separation from the people characterizes the social safety net in this country from top to bottom. Conservatives should defend the belief that we own the government and it answers to us through a rigorous agenda of decentralizing power and returning it to the people.
Help People, Expect Success
Welfare policy should be tailored to the needs, aspirations, and circumstances of those who need help, rather than administered by a bureaucrat following a formula. Part of the centralization of power is the rapid proliferation of acronym agencies that disempowers successful actors at the state, local, and community level. Winning the War on Poverty will require a streamlining of programs and using resources currently allocated to the safety net to match successful programs at lower levels of government.
The bureaucracy administering the welfare state has been largely allergic to rigorous accountability and data collection. In order to pay for successful programs, however, we need to be able to ascertain success. Incorporating innovative practices like social impact financing and data-backed, performance-based funding formulae provide a tremendous opportunity to move the needle in the War on Poverty.
We must avoid the pitfall of the Left’s focus on inputs. Part of that is recognizing our need to fight the long war. Poverty will not be defeated by optimizing the social safety net. We, as conservatives, need to be cognizant of what comes next. Marriage promotion, expanded opportunities for low-income workers to save and invest, restoring economic growth, systemic education reform, school choice for those in impoverished communities, and other conservative priorities all play a role in the long war against desperation.
If we want to take our country back, conservatives need to be mindful of our hearts and values. We need to be mindful of how our beliefs can make life better for others. If we’ve done that, then we realize this: the War on Poverty is a fight from which we cannot shy away.