Fight Poverty With Wages

There's a lot of discussion now about the failure of the War on Poverty that began in 1964, under President Lyndon Johnson. The increasingly orthodox view is that we've been throwing money at the problem for half a century, to no avail--even though directing money to places where there is too little of it would seem a logical foundation for helping the poor improve their lives. As I've wrote about here not too long ago, poverty is a quagmire they creates expenses the rest of us don't even know about -- there are far more barriers to getting out of poverty than there are that keep you from getting into it.

For 50 years now, we've created one program after another to eradicate poverty -- welfare, food stamps, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, the ACA, and a host of other actions built into our tax system. One recent article offered an even more exhaustive list of government programs that help the poor, without even being an official part of the war against it: Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, the Supplemental Security Income program, Medicare Part D, grants to school districts serving low-income children, and Pell Grants.

So, everyone agrees we've taken poverty seriously. We've created a panoply of relief programs to lessen it through government action, and yet, while we've enabled those with the lowest income to survive, the poor are still with us. And creating a permanent underclass dependent on tax dollars to feed and shelter and clothe their children is not the goal. The question is how we should respond to this discouraging reality.

One reaction that seems disturbingly prevalent is to blame mores and morals -- the decline of character and the family. Voices I respect and have read with great sympathy and interest in the past now imply that people are poor because, in essence, they choose to be. The reasoning is thus: to lift yourself out of poverty you need to delay gratification, exert sexual restraint (or at least avoid pregnancy with diligence), be conscientious and hard-working, and develop a sense of humility about what one deserves. And critics like Charles Murray focus on the breakdown of the nuclear family and the work ethic that held it together -- without these two forces, poverty is inevitable for the simple reason that only the luckiest and wealthiest can support a household on one income anymore. The one-parent household is a recipe for poverty in the largest segment of our population, and unless both fathers and mothers subordinate their own lives to the families that create, poverty will never go away.

I disagree, on principle, with none of this. All of it is true. But the missing piece of the puzzle here is the most crucial. Without opportunities to make money, none of it matters -- you can have the most upstanding family, going to church every Sunday, tucking the kids in at night with a bedtime story, one hour of TV per day, and a sit-down dinner at six. But with nothing more than minimum wage jobs in the service sector -- and more of all jobs across all sectors, with higher wages -- none of these sterling character traits will do a thing to lift families out of poverty.

At first, it seems a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Which comes first, poverty or the loss of character? If an economic downturn puts a parent out of work for two years, who is to blame them for selling drugs? But that's a character flaw, a criminal act, and the downward spiral begins. One arrest and game over.

We don't need more finger point. Poverty is a problem that requires solutions from both the right and the left, but right now the ball is in the court of the business world. It's clear, after half a century of government aid, that public money isn't going to make poverty disappear. What everyone needs right now, the poor more than anyone, are good jobs with good wages. And nobody can make that happen other than those who can direct their profits toward the problem of poverty by paying their people more and underwriting new ventures that create more and more jobs while driving our economy forward.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.