Thinkers on the left are obsessed with the idea that the disparity in what people earn is the source of society’s problems. Advocates have embraced the work of French economist Thomas Piketty, who argues that income inequality is the real culprit for America’s ills. In 2016, Bernie Sanders tried to turn that explanation into a political message, claiming that what the country needed to do was fight big-money interests, soak the rich, and pursue policies of mass redistribution. Donald Trump’s victory did nothing to dissuade Sanders or the likeminded that income inequality is the crux of the matter.
Today’s poverty no longer resembles the poverty of the Depression era, when the current system of transfer payments and in-kind support was first introduced. Welfare was originally intended as a benefit for the widows and children of coal miners killed on the job; when the War on Poverty was launched in 1964, the federal government made a wholesale commitment to providing direct assistance on a mass scale. Welfare became the default source of income for millions. Public housing, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC (which provides nutrition for women, infants, and children), the Earned Income Tax Credit, CHIP, and a spate of state initiatives were all meant to raise the standard of living of the poor.
Fifty years later, with $22 trillion spent on the War on Poverty, it’s hard to argue that we have accomplished much. We have created an underclass reliant on the government for support, with no expectation of improving their lives or the lives of their children. A culture of dependency, in which millions of Americans have been raised, has suffocated the old work ethic.
Concern about income inequality is primarily found among liberal intellectuals. The general public is little concerned with how much others make; rather, most people are concerned with fairness and equality of opportunity. The main problem in America is not that the wealthy make so much money but that the country needs more jobs. Redistribution of income will do nothing for the jobless, or for those stuck in the rut of public dependency.
In Poor No More, I propose a solution that addresses the jobs crisis: that the government eliminate welfare for all but those unable to work due to physical or mental handicaps. End all poverty programs, since trillions of dollars spent through these channels have had no positive effect. Then take the money saved and spend it to create jobs in the private sector—and, if all else fails, the public sector. Most Americans would gladly trade cutting a check to those out of work for cutting a check to those who will work. This plan would reduce poverty and expand the workforce participation rate, which is at historically low levels.
Focusing on income inequality misses the real issue: fairness. Americans want fair compensation for their day’s work. Only by bringing back jobs can we restore fairness, fight poverty, end dependency, and become a truly compassionate country.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images