Monday, November 8, 2010

How Can We Best Help the Poor?

People have asked how one might square conservative political philosophy with a Christian duty to help the poor. The question puzzles me a little because I don't know why anyone should think the two are in tension in the first place.

Of course, there might be some still in thrall to archaic stereotypes who believe that liberals care about the poor whereas conservatives care only about making money and protecting their wealth. That's simply not true, however. Conservatives and liberals, at least many of them, both agree that we have a moral obligation to help the poor. The debate between them is not about whether we should help but how we should help. It's about finding the best way to accomplish the goal of lifting people out of poverty.

Conservatives reject policies which are wasteful, inefficient and ineffective, which is how they view most government programs. Waste and inefficiency are unjust and immoral, but they are inevitable in government. The government initiates some anti-poverty program, and a bureaucracy is then erected to manage it. Your tax dollar wends its way through the bureaucratic sausage machine and everyone who touches it along the way takes a cut. By the time the money gets to the recipient for whom it is intended she may see only a fraction of the original dollar. That's wasteful and inefficient.

For six decades we've tried to solve the problem of the poor by essentially taking money from those who have, and giving it, often with no strings attached, to those who don't. For example, perhaps you work hard, maybe two jobs, to save for your children's education and to pay your mortgage. Your neighbor buys a house next door which he can't afford and is subsequently foreclosed upon. The government solution is to take money from you and give it to him to stave off foreclosure. That's unjust.

After six decades of these sorts of policies we are burdened with as much, if not more, poverty as ever. We have spent trillions of dollars since the 1960s on combating poverty and have very little to show for it. That's ineffective.

The best way to lift people out of penury is not by giving them a handout. It's by making sure there are jobs available for those who are willing to work. If people don't have to work for what they receive they'll never develop the virtues and disciplines necessary to rise above their circumstances.

So the question becomes, what's the best way to create jobs? Here again the liberal solution is to raise taxes, run up debt, and provide money in the form of stimulus to get the economy going. That may help a little, like a band aid might help a little, but the long term cost is very high. Not only do the jobs disappear when the stimulus runs out but the debt that the government incurs when they borrow the money to pay for it is an albatross around the necks of future generations.

A better approach is to create a private-sector business environment in which employers have the fiscal resources to expand their business and market their product. When consumers have more money in their pocket they'll buy more. When employers are making a significant profit and consumers are buying their product people will be hired. What's the best way to get more money into the pockets of businesses and customers? Conservatives argue that it's by removing onerous and costly regulations on businesses, keeping their taxes low and also reducing the taxes that consumers pay.

Right now businesses aren't hiring because they don't know how much Obamacare is going to cost them, they don't know how much their fuel costs will go up with the onset of inflation and the possibility that cap and trade gets passed next year, and they don't know what their tax rates will be after January 1st. The administration wants to allow the current lower tax rates to lapse, at least on those making over $250,000, which includes a lot of businesses. This will automatically kick in massive tax increases on these businesses unless legislation is passed to keep the current rates in place. All this uncertainty is like a tourniquet squeezing an arm. It just shuts off the flow of commerce.

Conservatives also believe that spending must be reduced because the more government spends the more money they have to borrow. The more they borrow the more money they have to print to pay on the debt. The more money there is in circulation the less value it has, and the less it will buy. That's inflation, and it always hurts the poor more than anyone because they're living on the tightest economic margins. When $3 buys only one gallon of gas instead of two, most of us just pay the extra cost and cut back somewhere else, but the poor can't pay it. They walk instead.

Moreover, when gas costs more everything costs more, including food, because it takes gas to raise, harvest, process and transport the food. The poor often cannot afford to pay the higher cost so they just do without.

Conservatives believe that the best way to help the poor, which all Christians, liberal and conservative, believe we must do, is to lower taxes, reduce spending, ease regulations on business, and reduce health care and fuel costs on both businesses and consumers. This will enable consumers to buy more, businesses to hire more, and that means jobs for those who need them.

The liberal solution is to do the opposite: Raise taxes, borrow money to spend on infrastructure, etc., increase the regulatory burden to protect the environment and the consumer, increase health care costs to pay for care for those who can't afford it, and increase fuel costs so that we are forced to conserve more. These may all sound like good ideas, but each of them stifles job creation and are no help at all in the long run to the poor who need jobs more than they need a marginally better environment.

The question for the Christian, then, is do we want a solution that ultimately does not make the situation of the poor better and may make it worse, or do we want a solution that helps not only the wealth creators in society, but also more effectively ameliorates the plight of the poor?