Tag: war on poverty

Education Guns Fire Blanks in War on Poverty

A lot of federal weapons were created to fight President Lyndon Johnson’s ”War on Poverty,” and some of the biggest were in education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and Head Start are all parts of Johnson’s overall effort to end poverty and create a “Great Society.” They also share two other things in common: pretty damning evidence that they are failures, and Cato videos laying out the bad news.

The first video – which calls for the end of the U.S. Department of Education, but in so doing highlights ESEA and HEA programs – presents the big evidence of K-12 and higher ed failure: massive spending, stagnant test scores, and turbo-charged college tuition inflation. Of course, a lot of variables affect these things, but there is simply no compelling evidence of federal success. 

The second video is of Cato’s recent forum, “Preschool Education: What the Research Says.” While there is a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of preschool generally, there seems to be consensus that Head Start has few, if any, meaningful, lasting, positive effects. Yet not only do we stick with it, President Obama is pushing to expand federal preschool intervention, to the tune of $75 billion over ten years.

What keeps these misfiring, War on Poverty blunderbusses in service? Not their effectiveness, because, well, there is precious little evidence of any. Most likely, it is that it’s very compelling to “help” the young and poor with big programs, while it is cost prohibitive for the average American, with a full-time job and other interests, to research whether these programs actually help. Finally, for most politicians – where the public-sentiment rubber meets the public-policy road – the costs of appearing not to care are much too great to act on the powerful evidence that voters rarely see.

Hopefully, voters will see these videos.

President Obama’s ‘War on Fun’

My DC Examiner column this week focuses on Barack Obama’s transformation into our National Noodge, nudging, shoving, poking and prodding Americans into healthier lifestyles via the powers of the federal government.

A year ago, the New York Times got all excited about the “new age of regulation” the administration was busy ushering in. The president had elevated “a new breed of regulators”: folks like regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, who wants to “nudge” Americans toward healthier consumption choices, and CDC head Thomas Frieden, who, as NYC health commissioner, proclaimed ”when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.”

Today’s column tracks how this killjoy crusade is playing out:

Quitting smoking was “a personal challenge for [Obama],” the first lady explained recently, and she never “poked and prodded.”

Of course not. It’s obnoxious to hector your loved ones. “Poking and prodding” is what good government does to perfect strangers. And that’s what the Obama administration has been doing, with unusual zeal, for the past 2 1/2 years.

You’re not a real president until you fight a metaphorical “war” on a social problem. So, to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” add Obama’s “War on Fun.” Like the “War on Terror,” it’s being fought on many fronts…

Among them: graphic warning labels for cigarettes; a ban on clove cigarettes and possibly menthols; shutting down online poker sites; banning caffeinated malt liquor; mandatory menu-labeling and ratcheting down allowable sodium levels in food to “adjust the American palate to a less salty diet.” Even healthy “real food” aficionados can find themselves in the crosshairs, as Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer selling raw milk discovered last month, when FDA agents and federal marshals raided his farm.

Last year, in a remarkably silly column entitled “Obama’s Happiness Deficit,” Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt wondered whether the president’s political difficulties stemmed from the fact that “he doesn’t seem all that happy being president.” I couldn’t care less whether Obama’s enjoying his job. He asked for it, he got it. But if he isn’t having fun, he shouldn’t take it out on the rest of us.

End Federal Welfare - Don’t Mend It

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, recently introduced “The Welfare Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation’s two key components are the imposition of work requirements on food stamps recipients and the capping of total spending for 77 welfare programs at 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation going forward) when unemployment drops below 6.5 percent.

From the RSC press release:

Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton enacted reforms in 1996 that required beneficiaries of a new welfare program (TANF) to either work or prepare for a job. President Clinton triumphantly declared these reforms would “end welfare as we know it,” and in fact millions of families have since moved off the TANF rolls and begun to provide for themselves.

Still, TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide benefits specifically to poor and low-income Americans. Despite the success of these reforms, combined state and federal welfare spending has almost doubled since 1996. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. We will spend another $10 trillion over the next decade based on recent projections. Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.

The bold text is my emphasis. I emphasized it because I have a hard time calling the reform of one welfare program a “success” when dozens of other federal welfare programs more than took its place. In my opinion, it’s analogous to winning a battle but losing the war – badly. Or, in keeping with the military theme, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The aftermath of TANF is one reason why I’m not enthusiastic about the RSC’s legislation. Assuming the bill becomes law (it won’t anytime soon), will the scope of federal government’s powers have become more limited? Will the now commonplace attitude that the federal government exists to provide for us at our neighbor’s expense begin to recede? Will the tangled mess that is the relationship between the federal government and the states be unsnarled?

While I don’t take issue with the House conservatives’ desire to rein in welfare spending and limit the pathologies that the food stamp program engenders, it’s disappointing that the propriety of the federal government’s role in providing welfare remains virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

The designers of the Constitution gave the federal government a tidy, defined list of powers – everything else was to be left to the states or to the people. Yes, that set-up has gradually been eviscerated. Yes, the federal government isn’t going to return to its more constrained origins in the near future. However, across the country there is renewed interest in reinstituting limits on federal power. Thus, there is hope for the long-term.

Policymakers who claim to share that interest would better serve this long-term hope by introducing legislation that returns powers the federal government has assumed to the states. Instead of tinkering with federal welfare programs, let’s have the public discussion and debate over the fundamental justness and desirability of letting Washington dictate how to meet the needs of the less fortunate.

[See these Cato essays (here, here, and here) for more on federal welfare programs and why both taxpayers and those in need would be better off if they were abolished. See this Cato essay for more on the desirability of fiscal federalism.]

End War—At Least the Drug War

War is an awful thing.  Yet, to show they are serious, politicians constantly use the “war” analogy.  A “war on poverty.”  An “energy war.”  The “drug war.”

Yet militarizing these and other issues is precisely the wrong way to deal with them.  So it is with the drug war, which has come most to resemble a real war.  Indeed, more Mexicans have been dying in their “drug war” than Americans have been dying in Iraq.

It’s time to call a truce.  Writes Sherwood Ross:

Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has renounced even the use of the phrase “War on Drugs” on grounds it favors incarceration of offenders rather than treatment. But talk is no substitute for action.

To his credit, Obama has long appeared to be open to a fresh approach. In an address at Howard University on Sept. 28, 2007, then Sen. Obama said, “I think it’s time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades.” 

“We will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior,” he added. “So let’s reform this system. Let’s do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.”
And as prison overcrowding worsens and governors currently whine they can’t balance budgets, the public might get some real relief.

Last year, more than 700,000 of the country’s 20-million pot smokers were arrested for marijuana possession, according to NORML, an advocacy lobby that works for decriminalization. Over the past decade, 5-million folks got arrested on marijuana charges, 90% of which were for “simple possession, not trafficking or sale,” NORML says.

“Regardless of whether one is a ‘drug warrior’ or a ‘drug legalizer,” writes Bob Barr in the May 25 Atlanta Journal Constitution, “it is difficult if not impossible to defend the 38-year old war on drugs as a success.”

Drug abuse is a serious social problem.  But so is alcoholism.  And many other social (mis)behaviors.  We should start treating it as a social, health, and moral problem, not as a matter for the criminal law.  

President Obama:  End this war!

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?