Pick up a newspaper and turn on the news and you’d think the welfare state is more entrenched than ever. With unemployment disturbingly high, wages for far too many people stagnating, and society becoming increasingly class-ridden, the calls on the left for stronger, more intrusive government have become increasingly louder.
The right’s response to all this welfarism has been, so far, tepid. Look, I for one would love it if the welfare state would disappear tomorrow morning. I have many other pleasant daydreams, most of which I’m not inclined to share with you. The facts are that we will always have some sort of welfare system, and what conservatives should do is argue about what sort of welfare we should have.
This is why Arthur C. Brooks’s cover story in the February Commentary is quite significant, and ought to be read carefully. “Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right,” says Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
It must be tangible, practical, and effective. And it must start with the following question: What do the most vulnerable members of society need? This means asking the poor themselves.
According to this Washington Post article by Zachary Goldfarb, key Republicans in Congress are turning to AEI for ideas on domestic policy, and “AEI began urging the party away from sterile discussions about debt and deficit and lower taxes toward a kinder, gentler display of concern for an American public still smarting from the Great Recession.”
It’s always important to show hidden connections, but readers should know that I have no connection with Brooks. I worked part time at AEI between 1994 and 2002, long before he arrived. I’ve never been in the same room with Brooks, as far as I know. I did have one article in AEI’s webzine The American after Brooks became president of that think tank, but he didn’t commission it and I have no idea if he read it.
However, I like what Brooks says. He’s a good writer and his book Who Really Cares? is worth reading if you want to know who gives to nonprofits. (It also needs to be revised and updated.)
Brooks begins by noting that most poverty researchers don’t actually know any poor people. He says that “one of my colleagues” told him a story about how he was grinding away on his dissertation “in a top university’s poverty-research center” when “an actual poor person walked in. He had seen the signs and was simply looking for help. The expert researchers had no idea what to do. Their instinct was to call security.”
How do the poor differ from the rich? In 1987, AEI convened a panel of eminent welfare experts on the left and right to see where they agreed. The panel, in a significant report called The New Consensus on Family and Welfare, concluded that if a poor person was graduated from high school, got married, and entered the labor force in any job, they would gradually do better in life.
A quarter century later, Brooks agrees with the first two parts of the 1987 panel’s finding but not the third. He says that findings from the General Social Survey show that “faith, family, community, and work” are the keys to happiness in our country, and poor people often remain unmarried, isolated from other people, and lacking religion, principles which prevent them from success.
Brooks has two surprising allies in his position. Robert C. Samuelson, the Washington Post’s excellent economics columnist, observes that “the poor are not poor because the rich are rich.” Some rich people got that way because they inherited their wealth. Most made it because they started successful small (or large) businesses or are at the top in certain professions (authors, athletes, actors) where the best in their field are rewarded for being very good at what they do.
As for the poor, Samuelson notes that President Obama (of all people) would agree with Brooks. In his recent New Yorker interview, the president noted that “the ‘pathologies’ that used to be attributed to the African-American community in particular—single-parent households, and drug abuse, and men dropping out of the labor force, and an underground economy” are also seen “in larger numbers in white working-class communities.”
So what is a “conservative social-justice agenda?” Much of it will be very familiar. It is very clear, for example, that poor children forced to attend rotten schools get a very bad start in life. So we need to have more school choice in the inner cities.
What about jobs? Here Brooks cites the work of AEI fellow Michael R. Strain, who suggests creating “relocation vouchers” that would help unemployed people in weak labor markets move to areas like North Dakota where the economy is roaring. In a provocative article in National Affairs Strain has many other good ideas, including reducing the licensing bureaucracy that requires thousands of hours of training for relatively simple jobs like cutting hair and strengthening right-to-work laws.
But other parts of Brooks’s agenda are too vague: “First, there is nothing inherently wrong with safety net programs, be they SNAP, housing support, or Medicaid. Second, they must be designed and administered in ways that fight fiercely against dependency.” But Brooks doesn’t explain what he means by this, or how the agencies distributing federal subsidies for food, housing, and medical care would change if conservatives were in charge.
Citing Kauffman Foundation research, Brooks says that entrepreneurship in America is at a historic low. But the federal agency that is supposed to promote entrepreneurship, the Small Business Administration, is not mentioned in Brooks’s article. Indeed, it would be a good project for AEI to examine the SBA closely. Is this an agency that can be reformed to do something useful, or is it hopelessly corrupt?
The statist agenda of President Obama’s first administration was so overwhelming that it was the duty of everyone on the right to dig trenches and block the offensive. But it’s now time for conservatives to be for something, and Brooks’s article helps advance the debate.
“The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people,” Brooks concludes, “whether or not they vote as we do.”