It is Black History Month, and as people reflect on the struggles and accomplishments of African-Americans over many decades, many agree that “more can be done” to ensure economic opportunity for all Americans.
But the demand that the “more” must be done by government through a stronger safety net, wealth redistribution and mandated equality measures overshadows the years of evidence that indicate more often than not, government programs fail. They disincentivize wise choices, diminish individual will, limit educational opportunities, and create burdensome regulations that hinder entrepreneurship and increase the cost of living for families embracing the notion that advancement is their responsibility.
Consider urban planning, for example. “Smart growth” measures implemented by cities that are designed to reduce urban sprawl, which prices lower- and middle-income families out of the housing market by limiting the quantity of housing, the land available for housing, and the types of housing that are allowed. Housing economist Wendell Cox finds that the white homeownership rate is 50 percent above the rates for Hispanic and African-American households, and he attributes much of this difference to prescriptive zoning, which drives up the cost of housing. Government-driven solutions declaring a right to own a home is not the answer. That philosophy led to the subprime mortgage crisis.
In the area of education, charter schools offer parents — particularly those in urban areas — educational options for their children where previously they were relegated to a failing public school. Charter schools are smaller than conventional public schools and serve a disproportionate and increasing number of poor and minority students. Despite some mayors’ attempts to restrict them, according to the Center for Education Reform, charter school students are more likely to be proficient in reading and math than students in neighboring conventional schools, achieving the greatest gains among African-American, Hispanic and low-income students. So why would the first African-American president cancel the District of Columbia’s school voucher program in April 2009 for deserving minority school children in one of America’s worse school districts?
Proponents of higher minimum wages say they will help the working poor, yet they often price the lowest-skilled workers out of the market so they essentially earn nothing. Black teenagers are at the greatest risk of being priced out of the labor market. From 1948 to 1955, unemployment of black and white teenage males was essentially the same — 11.3 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively. However, after the minimum wage was raised from 75 cents to $1 in 1956, unemployment rose significantly for both black and white teenage males, with blacks bearing more of the burden. By 1969, the unemployment rate was 22.7 percent for black teenage males and 14.6 percent for white teenage males. Today, the unemployment rate for black teenagers is close to 40 percent — and we wonder what is happening in our inner cities with rising criminal activity, especially with black males.
Occupational licensing is supposed to protect the public from unsafe and untrained operators, but in many professions, it is unnecessary and costly. A prime example of overreach is the licensing and training requirements for hair braiders. Hair braiding is a common service in the African-American community, but in some states, braiders must complete at least 300 hours of training, or have three years of experience and complete 150 hours of training, similar to requirements of cosmetologists. However, hair braiding does not involve handing potentially dangerous chemicals used on hair, so the thousands of dollars hair braiders must spend on licensing for the health and safety of the public makes no sense — and deters the entrepreneurial spirit.
When comparing lifetime benefits, the rate of return on Social Security is lower for blacks than for whites due to their shorter life expectancy. Among 20-year-old white men, almost 84 percent are expected to reach the normal retirement age. By contrast, fewer than 64 percent of 20-year-old black men are expected to live that long. Thus, although he pays the same payroll tax rate while he is working, the average 20-year-old black male can expect to draw fewer monthly retirement benefit checks. This is personal for me (Allen West), as my own dad and mom passed at the respective ages of 66 and 63 from stroke and liver cancer.
The structure of welfare benefits encourages single parenthood and family breakups, which exacerbates poverty. The poverty rate for female-headed households with children is 44.5 percent, compared to 7.8 percent for married couples with children. The poverty rate for married black Americans is only 11.4 percent, while the rate for black female-headed households is 53.9 percent.
Most welfare benefits are restricted to families with children. Thus, having a baby offers a gateway to a generous package of government benefits. However, if the mother marries a man who earns a significant income, the benefits are lost. Indeed, if the mother marries a man who is not working, but the government requires him to take available work before benefits are paid, then the benefits will be lost in any event, whether he refuses to work, or if he works and earns an income that eliminates them. Government is effectively paying women to have children out of wedlock, resulting in a 72 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate in the black community. This is devastating and demeaning to the African-American community that was once the model of strong families.
I (Allen West) grew up in the inner-city Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta. As a kid walking down Auburn Avenue to the historic Butler Street YMCA, I saw black businesses, churches, and doctors’ and lawyers’ offices — a panoply of role models. It has been 50 years since the advent of the Great Society anti-poverty programs. Clearly, they don’t work.
• Allen West, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He is president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, where Pamela Villarreal is a senior fellow.