A social justice fight
Conservatives must lead America to equal opportunity.

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Article Highlights

  • The percentage of Americans in the workforce has fallen to its lowest level since the 1970s.

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  • Food stamp enrollment has risen by 50% since January 2009.

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  • A true social justice agenda will rest on the pillars of transformation, relief and opportunity.

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  • 1 in 6 citizens in the world's wealthiest country now rely on nutrition assistance from their government.

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  • Economists calculate that income inequality has actually grown under this administration.

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  • Years after the recession's technical end, too many Americans are still struggling.

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  • Transformation, relief and opportunity are all required for genuine social justice. Conservatives can speak powerfully to all three.

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Who owns the term "social justice," conservatives or liberals? Whatever your own politics, you probably said "liberals." After all, most progressive policies — raising the minimum wage, expanding entitlements, increasing taxes on the wealthy as outlined in President Obama's budget proposal this week — are framed as steps towards greater fairness and compassion.

But as the past five years have shown, intentions do not equal results. Since Obama took office, stock markets have soared and the wealthy have regained their economic footing. But the most vulnerable people have fallen further and further behind. The percentage of Americans in the workforce has fallen to its lowest level since the 1970s. Food stamp enrollment has risen by 50% since January 2009; one in six citizens in the world's wealthiest country now rely on nutrition assistance from their government. Economists calculate that income inequality has actually grown under this administration.

In short, social justice has not been served. But these failures are nothing for conservatives to celebrate. Years after the recession's technical end, too many Americans are still struggling. Conservatives need to construct a solution of their own. But how?

They should start by actually asking vulnerable people what they need to thrive. Conservatives will hear that turning one's life around requires three things: transformation, relief and opportunity. A true social justice agenda will rest on these three pillars.

Personal moral transformation comes first. Using data from the 2010 General Social Survey, I constructed two identical men in terms of age, race, education, and income. But one is religious, married with two children, and lands in the top 10% of Americans for hours worked and community engagement. The other is single with no kids and no religion, and is professionally and socially disengaged.

How will these men fare? The data show that the first man has a 47% likelihood of saying that, all things considered, he's very happy with life. The second man's odds of saying the same are just 10%.

Faith, family, community and work are crucial for meaningful living, and thus for true success. Yet as Charles Murray documents in his book Coming Apart, these very institutions are increasingly endangered in low-income America. To help rebuild marginalized communities, we need to talk openly about values and face these facts head-on — not sweep them under the rug.

After transformation, material relief. America's tradition of voluntary charity is the envy of the world, but private philanthropy alone cannot lift up the millions this "recovery" has left behind. As even the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek argued, guaranteeing "some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing" is an appropriate task for government. A genuine, limited social safety net is an important part of a prosperous and free society.

But today's sprawling welfare state frequently harms those it is intended to help. Too often, President Franklin Roosevelt's warning that "continued dependence" on government is "a subtle destroyer of the human spirit" goes unheeded and government undermines a culture of work. Meanwhile, the extension of entitlements into the upper-middle class threatens America's solvency. Only fiscally conservative reforms can prevent future austerity cuts that would endanger the poor the most.

The final piece of social justice is opportunity. Conservatives love hearing stories of Americans pulling themselves up from humble beginnings and earning their own success. Yet today, too few Americans are able to write those stories for themselves. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, economic mobility has declined by roughly a third over the past generation. The ladder of opportunity is losing its lowest rungs.

Restoring equal opportunity will require three things. First, we need bold education reform and schools that help every child realize her potential. Second, we need a plan to create more jobs and economic growth at every level of the economy. And third, we need free enterprise — the economic system that empowers all people to find jobs and build businesses that match their passions and skills.

Transformation, relief and opportunity are all required for genuine social justice. Conservatives can speak powerfully to all three. It is time for the free enterprise movement to reclaim the mantle of fighting for people and step forward as the champions that vulnerable Americans deserve.

Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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