Time to rethink 'war on poverty'
Thursday, September 23, 2010 in USA Today
by Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel

Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot. View the video version of this column atopinion.usatoday.com or at USA TODAY's YouTube channel, youtube.com/usatoday.

Today: What to do about poverty.

Bob: If folks had any doubt about the depth of this recession, they need not look any further than the number of Americans suffering in poverty. And I'm not talking about those who lost their too-expensive home because they were living large on credit cards and fictional home equity. I'm talking about people who were barely scraping by before this recession and who are now being buried under its weight.

Cal: With 8 million jobs lost in such a short time, it's no wonder.

Bob: Recent reports of an increase in the number of Americans who have fallen below the poverty line is tragic, but sadly predictable. When the economy sinks, people are caught in the undertow. In the recession of 1980, the poverty rate was 13%. In today's Great Recession, according to new data, it's up to 14.3%, or nearly 44 million people. Million!

Cal: Something else has been acting like a nest of termites, gnawing away at the foundations of our economy. We have spent trillions of dollars since Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," and that war has been lost. If you wind up with as many poor people as when you began — actually more — something isn't working. What's not working — and here I will invoke an apt cliché— is that there have been too many handouts and not enough hand-ups.

Bob: I've never had a problem with the hands-up concept, the problem is: a hand-up to where? The fact is most poverty is concentrated in areas with fewer well-paying jobs. We can't expect the government to supply all those jobs, but there is still a role for government to play to encourage the private sector to create jobs in these poverty zones.

Cal: Wait a minute. Government can't simply wave the magic wand and create jobs? Isn't that what Obama and company have been trying to do since he took the oath of office?

Bob: Do you really want to get into the stimulus argument now?

Cal: We can tackle that another day. Look, we've been through "enterprise zones" and all sorts of other failed government programs and strategies for elevating the poor to independence. What's needed are incentive zones. Look at the common ground reached — however reluctantly — by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s. They cooperated on welfare reform, despite claims from the left that people would starve and that the bill was "legislative child abuse," as Sen. Ted Kennedy put it at the time. They didn't starve. Most found work and are now paying taxes, not receiving them.

Bob: The jury is still out on the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform measure. Under that bill, the federal government no longer provided standardized welfare payments as they had since 1959. Instead, they left it to the states to implement their own anti-poverty programs. Some have apparently been successful and some have not.

Cal: The jury is still out?! I guess in your world it'll never render a verdict. Bob, this was a case where the states were far better equipped to decide who should get help and who was a lazy so-and-so simply gaming the system. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the states — and cities like New York— devised plans to wean the able-bodied off welfare by putting them to work. As a result, people got jobs as well as their dignity and self-respect.

Bob: As a liberal involved in anti-poverty programs over the years, I have a confession to make. It is clear to me that direct payment of welfare grants to people with no strings attached has bred two generations of people dependent on the government. I want to emphasize that our intentions were honorable, but like so many things, there were unintended consequences and in the case of many anti-poverty programs, one of those consequences has been the stifling of incentive to move out of poverty.

Cal: You know what that "road to hell" is paved with, don't you? But better late than never. You may not believe this coming from a conservative, but I have been poor. I know what it's like to squeeze every dime out of a dollar. But I never accepted poverty as the final verdict. I worked very hard — and was willing to work at anything, including jobs that had nothing to do with my professional goals — in order to feed and house my family. I had faith that better days were ahead. That's the attitude missing from so much of today's entitlement and dependency culture.

Bob: You are indeed a success story. For those on the left, you're too successful! However, you had advantages that many people on welfare today do not. You are educated, you came from a two-parent family in a safe neighborhood and went on to establish a wildly successful marriage. Many on welfare today are single mothers who lack education, have no child care help or transportation for jobs out of their neighborhood. Initiative alone can only do so much.

Cal: I know women who fit this profile and who are successful today. One of them, Star Parker, a Republican, is running for Congress from California. She and others who made it determined in their minds and heart to find a way out of poverty. A 60 Minutes show a few years back focused on the hard-core unemployed in New York and taught them how to dress and act at job interviews. Most found jobs. Yes, they were entry level, but it got them in the door.

Bob: There are always stunning, and laudable, examples like Parker, but let's be realistic. We're talking tens of millions of our fellow citizens in poverty today. Only a fraction of them will find the formula for success that she has. What about child care, transportation and those other impediments?

Cal: I am willing to see my taxes go for that, lest people hang on to the stereotype that conservatives believe in no assistance for those down on their luck. But here's a longer-term fix: While various administrations have been arranging the chairs on the Poverty Titanic, let's start focusing more on the children, but not with more failed government programs that do little to lift them from poverty. If we can save the kids, we can greatly reduce poverty in the next generation.

Bob: You'll get no argument here.

Cal: OK, since we've agreed in a previous column on education choice, I draw your attention to something that is actually working. The Children's Scholarship Fund in New York reports it has already helped nearly 29,000 disadvantaged children nationwide and 9,300 in New York City with scholarships to private schools. For a donation of $85, this non-profit is able to pay one child's tuition for a month. These kids can then get out of failing schools and find a sustainable path to a better life. I'm sending a check for $85. Can I count on you to match mine?

Bob: Of course.

Cal: The entire welfare formula has been wrong from the beginning. I salute liberals for compassion, but compassion without seeking to change behavior merely perpetuates poverty. People still must face consequences for bad choices.

Bob: What has been lacking in welfare are incentives for people to succeed. You're not going to force someone into success, but you need to remove as many obstacles as possible. I still believe government has a major role in removing these obstacles.

Cal: "You can do it" has been a cry I've heard since the training wheels came off my bicycle as a child. This used to be a nation that focused on people who overcame obstacles, not obsessed with those who couldn't. "Nothing succeeds like persistence," President Calvin Coolidge once said. He was right then, and the sentiment still works today. If government is to have a role in this, it should be mainly focused on encouraging incentive and persistence. Americans embrace these traits, and government should not encourage people to suddenly abandon them.

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