The Obama administration’s “progressive” agenda has left the poor behind. Years after the Great Recession, real need persists. The left’s misguided policies and materialistic culture only exacerbate the problem. It is conservatives and libertarians who must be struggling Americans’ true champions.
The state of need in America today
Some Americans have thrived under this administration. Since January 2009, the Dow Jones has more than doubled and other indices have climbed back to record highs. But the rebound has not benefited all Americans equally: Economist Emmanuel Saez estimates that fully 95% of recovery gains have flowed to the top 1% of earners.
Meanwhile, the poor have become even more desperate.
- The number of citizens who rely on “food stamps” has soared by 50% since early 2009;
- Just 63% of Americans are working or seeking work, the lowest rate since the 1970s;
- Crisis-level unemployment persists in vulnerable communities—36% for African-American teens.
This disparity offends any sense of plain justice. The administration’s critics cannot settle for schadenfreude. We need solutions. But how to develop them?
You start by actually asking marginalized people and those who serve them. Their testimony confirms what social science and survey data say. In their own words, vulnerable people need three things: Personal moral transformation, material relief, and the opportunity to rise.
Social justice starts with values
Refusing to discuss values is immoral.
Research shows that four values are integral to a well-ordered and happy life: Faith, family, community, and work. These critical institutions remain abundant in high-income, high-education America. But as Charles Murray and others have found, they are rapidly vanishing at the bottom.
Refusing to discuss these values is profoundly unfair to the communities imperiled by their absence. To presume that low-income people are somehow unworthy of the same moral standards to which we hold ourselves is not “politically correct.” It is immoral and inaccurate.
The safety net requires conservatism
Stop fighting against things. Start fighting for people.
Americans’ charitable giving sets an example for the world. But private efforts alone cannot support the level of assistance that Americans believe is our moral duty. Conservatives and libertarians must honor Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between a true safety net for the indigent and the rent-seeking tangle that is today’s welfare state. Drop the materialistic fight against spending and take up a moral fight for people. Fight for pro-work reforms that promote dignity and prosperity instead of eroding them.
Empathy doesn’t contradict fiscal conservatism; it actually requires it. Sprawling middle-class entitlements are driving America towards insolvency. And insolvency will compel austerity that, as in Europe, is guaranteed to hurt the poor the most. Entitlement reform is a major antipoverty priority.
Unleashing opportunity for everyone
Every American child deserves access to an education system that endows them with human capital. Yet while federal spending per pupil has skyrocketed, test scores have stagnated—and broken bureaucracies ensure that the most vulnerable kids receive the worst education of all. It is far past time to empower poor families to choose better schools.
But a fair start is only the beginning. True mobility requires free enterprise, the economic system that has turned millions of people’s ambitions and innovations into the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. Only free enterprise equips everyone to earn their own success through hard work and merit and builds prosperity in which everyone can share.
Sometimes that requires legitimate government action. Often, it simply means getting the state out of the way. In both cases, it is time for conservatives to be warriors for vulnerable people.