The following piece was co-authored by R Street President Eli Lehrer.

After five decades of liberal antipoverty programs that have produced only failure and futility, it is more than time for a conservative response to the problem of poverty—one that emphasizes work, family, and economic freedom.

Indeed, if the Republican party wants to regain the White House and be trusted to run the executive branch’s myriad poverty-related programs, it will need an agenda beyond simple budget cuts for poverty programs. Instead, conservatives need a plan to foster a dynamic economy in which far fewer Americans would need to rely on government in the first place.

To produce such a plan requires some knowledge of who the poor are. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 46 million Americans were living below the poverty line in 2011, about 15 percent of the population. That figure, roughly the same as in 2010, is only 4 points lower than the rate when Lyndon Johnson declared the “War on Poverty” in 1964. After falling to 17.3 percent in 1965 and a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, the poverty rate mostly floated between 11 and 15 percent over the intervening years, briefly crossing the 15 percent threshold in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s.

But the poverty rate has been on a steady climb these past five years and, by a variety of measures, Americans’ chances of escaping poverty have declined consistently since the 1970s. A search for root causes implicates just about every major social trend of the past several decades. To name just a few, technology has increased the returns on education and the penalties for poor skills and work habits; the breakdown of nuclear families has required already-limited resources to be stretched even further to support multiple households; and a growing welfare state has provided many of the wrong incentives. These trends are extraordinarily difficult to reverse.

Conservatives long have made the moral case that the poor, like everyone else, should be held accountable for their choices. And it’s true that people who marry, avoid substance abuse, graduate from high school, avoid going to jail, refrain from having children out of wedlock, and hold jobs (even minimum wage ones) for at least a year almost never end up living in poverty.

It’s also largely true that today’s American poor do not face privation to quite the same degree as either earlier generations or the poor elsewhere in the world. In the United States today, poor people rarely miss meals, though they may wonder where the next meal is coming from; they generally don’t end up homeless, although they may come close; and they typically can get needed medical care, although it takes a lot of work to do so.

All that said, being poor still involves significant misery, constant insecurity, and material deprivation. Moreover, many of the conditions that trap Americans in poverty are the direct result of government policies, often implemented with good intentions.

The lives of America’s poor are ones in which even relatively minor difficulties can quickly spiral out of control, making it almost impossible to plan for the future. A small but telling example: One recent study published in Pediatrics detailed how a lack of money to buy diapers can throw a poor family into crisis, causing a mother to skip work to avoid leaving her diaperless child at daycare. Even basic services that most Americans take for granted, like low-cost checking accounts, often are unavailable to those without means, forcing the poor into the expensive and inefficient financial services offered by check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders.

In these and a thousand other ways, the American social system today requires more resources and wherewithal to navigate properly than in the past. In today’s market, access to technology is increasingly necessary to find a job, and the number of well-paid jobs available to people with modest education has plummeted.

Government regulations exacerbate the problem. A recent report from the libertarian Institute for Justice shows that state licensing laws force workers who aspire to ply an array of moderate-skill trades to spend an average of nine extra months in schools that prepare them for licensing exams, paying hundreds of dollars in fees along the way. Such hurdles place a disproportionate burden on those of limited means.

Meanwhile, government assistance programs often seem better designed to serve the middle class than the poor. Dozens of state and federal college programs offer extra money to help middle-class students attend the college they choose, but the sort of comprehensive support poor students need to even consider attending a four-year university is extraordinarily difficult to come by.

Most of these problems are not new. But with just a few notable exceptions (Jack Kemp; more recently, Rick Santorum), the Republican party and the conservative movement have been hesitant to offer policies to ameliorate these problems. Why should now be any different?

To start, because writing off some 46 million fellow citizens is simply not viable in a healthy liberal democracy. Democracy requires that everyone have access to opportunity. Concern for the poor, moreover, is a core value for Americans of all political stripes, a fact made abundantly clear in the massive dataset of social-attitude surveys compiled by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

And the poor represent a larger part of the conservative coalition than many Republicans realize. Between 28 and 36 percent of people earning less than $15,000 per year give their votes to GOP candidates. That’s better than Republicans typically do among African Americans, Jews, or Asians.

But in the end, a conservative poverty agenda ought to be seen as essential to building a democratic society that favors and rewards the industrious and innovative, yet includes the poor. By failing to provide such an agenda, conservatives ignore a prominent national problem—and in doing so abandon the field to the political left.

Any conservative antipoverty agenda must begin with work—which presupposes employability: habits of courtesy, responsibility, punctuality, honesty, and so on. Research shows overwhelmingly that work is central to escaping poverty. This is true not only for the obvious reasons—the wages and benefits—but also for the role work plays in cultivating healthy lifestyles, that is, in helping individuals achieve self-respect, feel happier, and set an example for younger generations. And the consensus on the centrality of work is near universal: Researchers Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution—no bastion of conservatism—have identified a “work gap” that leaves poor families at a disadvantage in all of these areas. As Sawhill and Karpilow write, “some [poor] households lack an employed member, a majority lack two earners and a high proportion work very few hours even when the economy is operating at full employment.”

Despite lots of high-minded rhetoric about the value of work, the conservative public policy agenda on work remains woefully underdeveloped. Historically, the focus has been on tying work requirements to welfare programs and, more recently, resisting the Obama administration’s efforts to gut existing work requirements. This is all good. But given a still-sluggish economy and the relocation of many jobs away from areas where poor people live, work mandates alone—without appropriate plans to encourage and support the poor in their search for jobs—represent an insufficient response that, in its current form, just adds bureaucratic requirements to already bloated public programs.

Properly structured work incentives would build on what is already our largest welfare program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which remains decidedly modest. For a single worker without children living at home, the EITC refunds less than $425 per year. Introducing and expanding similar wage supplements, even the short-lived “Making Work Pay” tax credit included in the misbegotten 2009 stimulus package, would further encourage a life of work as preferable to welfare or life in the underground economy.

In the short term, conservatives should consider, and debate thoroughly, the merits of a variety of measures that encourage employers to create more entry-level jobs. These could include permitting employers to pay a sub-minimum “training” wage when they invest in developing the skills of the previously unemployed. They could also include relocation grants offered through the unemployment system to help people move away from pockets of high unemployment and to growing areas with a surplus of jobs.

Of particular interest should be reform of public programs whose structure discourages work. This might include allowing people to hang on to some benefits—including unemployment and a larger share of disability insurance payments—as they transition into the workforce. The disability system, in particular, should shift its focus to returning the disabled to work where possible, rather than cementing permanent dependence on the state.

In the longer term, Republicans may want to radically reorient the welfare system, away from a series of largely disconnected programs addressing segmented needs (food, disability, housing, medical care, and childcare) and toward a comprehensive, but less bureaucratic, wage supplement. In short, they should consider a negative income tax, designed to make work far more attractive. There are significant policy design challenges inherent in a negative income tax, and a poorly constructed one risks eliminating incentives to work altogether. Happily, there is no shortage of creative scholars who already have given significant thought to overcoming these challenges.

Of course, an emphasis on work alone is not enough. A truly conservative antipoverty agenda also must promote strong families. Married, two-income couples, even those earning only minimum wage, find it much easier to escape poverty, and most children who grow up with the example of hard work, thrift, and successful marriage can avoid becoming poor.

But many poor women face extensive barriers to marriage, ranging from the high proportion of men living in poverty who commit crimes and thereby end up in correctional facilities to the paucity of jobs for people with little formal education. Larger refundable child tax credits and even savings incentives for couples and singles of modest means would likewise relieve some of the financial pressure that can tear apart marriages and leave children without two parents.

Moreover, while marriage is the ideal, single parent households also must be recognized as family units that need support, as a child is far better off with a single competent mother or father than as a ward of the state. Efforts to expand counseling, classes, and even group homes for such parents and their children deserve consideration. A family values agenda would embrace and support existing families, even as it encouraged the formation of committed, loving marriages.

Conservatives also have a lot to say about the ways government itself often holds back the poor, for instance through the ever-growing regulatory state. Outdated union-protection laws like the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires union wages on many federal projects, reserve desirable jobs for union members. More generally, except where public health and safety are clearly at stake, government should play no role in deciding what professions individuals can pursue.

Occupational licensing may make sense for those doing open heart surgery or designing bridges, but a wide range of other jobs—hair dresser, teeth whitener, real estate salesperson, medical technician—that should be routes out of poverty are among the fields most protected by state licensing cartels. Where feasible, regulating bodies should replace the certification process, which locks out those without the time or resources to spend on classes, with on-the-job apprenticeship that allows trainees to earn a modest wage and enjoy the intrinsic benefits of work.

We should also take another look at government rules that bar those with a criminal record—a large percentage
of adult men in poverty—from a host of government or government-licensed jobs. So long as there is no direct nexus between a crime and an ex-offender’s desired career path, the government should not work to frustrate him. Drug abusers probably shouldn’t be allowed to work as pharmacists, but neither should they face any special obstacle to becoming, say, plumbers. In all too many cases, they do.

The political left long has been able to outbid the right in its quest for the votes of the poor—and the votes of those concerned about the poor—mostly by offering programs aimed at relief. The right has failed to formulate a countervailing agenda of its own. As a result, in the fullness of time, much of the left’s agenda has gone into force.

But the right can offer its own better vision for the relief of poverty. A conservative antipoverty agenda is one that offers both temporary relief and longer-term institutional changes, all aimed at holding out the possibility of steady employment and stable families. Republicans can advance a comprehensive strategy that meets people on their own terms and provides the combination of opportunity, incentive, and assistance necessary to move millions of fellow citizens toward lives of thrift, industry, and self-reliance.

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