- - Tuesday, June 25, 2013


President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, and Americans have been fighting a losing battle ever since. Fortunately, the broader conservative-libertarian movement has the ability, and the responsibility, to bring forward serious ideas to confront poverty. In fact, conservative causes, such as welfare reform, fiscal responsibility, free enterprise, and supporting local communities and faith-based organizations, have a long history of success.

Americans have paid $15 trillion in a noble but misguided effort to use government agencies and statist policies over the past 50 years. Yet, the poverty rate never fell below 10.5 percent and is now near 15.1 percent, Americans have lost 55 percent of their wealth in the past five years, and nearly 50 million Americans are struggling to make a living. Meanwhile, 126 agencies spending $1 trillion a year cannot seem to gain any ground.

Statistics, however, fail to show the reality of the daily suffering endured by single mothers, working parents, and children in inner cities. Some serious flaws in the poverty rate’s calculation exist and are worth addressing. However, no one seriously doubts the prevalence or the destructive nature of poverty on both the national and international scale. For decades, progressive policies have trapped generations of Americans in poverty, bad schools and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

It’s time for a better war on poverty.

Free enterprise, families, and strong local communities are the solution. Economic statistics, flow charts and spreadsheets are important but insufficient. Human problems demand a humane response. This is not to say that policy solutions ought not to be backed up by impeccable research and spreadsheets. However, the conservative war on poverty must be fought by persuading citizens of the validity of the policies, as well as the policies themselves.

Liberals put forth policies seeking to mitigate the poverty that they helped create. They stifle educational reform and competition from vouchers, charters and home-schooling. They prevent job growth by crushing small businesses with federal regulations. Instead of giving opportunities for work, growth and community support, they offer government dependence and isolation. Democrats are the party of disappointment. Their policies have failed.

Is this the best America has to offer?

Instead of multiple agencies that fail in their mission, why not one agency that works? Instead of pouring money to grow federal agencies and infrastructures, why not provide more grants to local community groups and intermediaries to do what they do best? Community organizations can do what federal bureaucrats never do: They can invest in their own towns and in their own neighbors. A government agency cannot sit with a former alcoholic in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or hug a child who has been abandoned by his parents.

On a practical level, government agencies make it harder, not easier, to address legitimate concerns about poverty, addiction and human suffering. Ross Douthat has argued that the exploding costs of these agencies prohibit other forms of spending, and the resulting increased tax burden on the middle class threatens to drag even more Americans into poverty. Noble laureate Thomas Sowell has shown how poverty is exasperated by dependence.

Conservatives offer a better war on poverty. The 1996 welfare reform, gutted by the White House, empowered tens of thousands of Americans to leave the bondage of government dependence. School choice empowers parents in bad school systems to find alternatives and brighter futures for their children. Defending food-truck owners, barber shops, and florists from protectionist governmental regulation creates jobs and wealth while strengthening communities.

Conservative and libertarian principles are more capable of waging war on poverty, but it will be challenging. They will need to unabashedly explain a message that is more complicated than the false promises of health and wealth associated with a government program.

Nevertheless, it’s a war worth fighting, because countless lives hang in the balance. This indelible truth must be championed not because it will gain votes, but because it’s the right thing to do. Statism, dependency and out-of-control entitlement spending will undermine our efforts to free our neighbors from the bonds of poverty. Free enterprise, strong families and strong communities will enable us to win the war Johnson started so long ago.

Brandon James Smith is a 27-year-old lawyer working in Washington, D.C.

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