Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 18, 2014

Government is a poor mechanism for correcting societal problems

— — Most Americans think that helping truly needy people, whether they live here or in some other country, is a worthy objective. Looking at charitable contributions as a benchmark, Americans are the most generous people in the world, giving $316.23 billion to charitable organizations in 2012, about 2 percent of the gross domestic product, according to Charity Navigator, and preliminary figures for 2013 indicate a significant increase to $328 billion.

Double those numbers and it still would not be good enough for the federal government, which believes that if private sources don’t relieve every semblance of suffering for every single suffering American, the government must step in and do the job better.

Except that government can’t do it better, never has, and never will.

Government’s failure to achieve better results than normal people doing what normal people do has never been a deterrent to wasting billions of taxpayers dollars in a futile effort to try one more time to do so.

The most notorious failure was Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which began 50 years ago in Mr. Johnson’s State of the Union message. From the beginning of the War on Poverty until 2013, local, state and federal spending on welfare programs totaled $16 trillion, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Currently, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty.

When the War on Poverty began, 33 million Americans were in poverty and the poverty rate was 19 percent. Today, approximately 46.5 million live in poverty and the poverty rate is 15 percent. Even though the poverty rate is lower than 50 years ago, because our population is much larger now than then, more people are poor today than in 1964. We have fought a long and expensive fight, and lost. Yet we still fight on.

President Barack Obama’s cause du jour is income inequality, and it’s significant other, the minimum wage. And now that “reforming” the best health care system in the world is well underway, he wants to declare war against income inequality.

In no free or relatively free economic system can there be income equality, for two reasons. First, inequality is a fundamental part of life. Some people sing better than others. Some are better athletes than others. And some people make more money than others, and that’s because some people are better at their job than others and deserve higher pay, and some jobs require more skill and training than others, and pay better.

So, like poverty, another area that will always exist, we will always have income inequality.

Far more important, however, is whether there is the opportunity to move up from the lower income levels, and that is an area that has been fairly stable, according to The New York Times, which reported last month that “the odds of moving up — or down — the income ladder in the United States have not changed appreciably in the last 20 years ...”

That means that people in the lowest quintile are not condemned to stay there, and people in the top quintile are not guaranteed to stay there, and there is substantial movement in and out of all quintiles.

It’s a favored piece of envy politics that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But the data tell a different story. From 1967 to 2009, the real mean household income increased for every quintile, which means the poor became richer, not poorer. Americans in poverty could afford more goods and services in 2009 than in 1967, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Other factors, like where people live, have an effect. Harvard University’s Raj Chetty reported “the probability that a child reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4 percent in Charlotte but 12.9 percent in San Jose,” and factors such as better primary schools and greater family stability also aid upward mobility, he wrote.

Larry Kaufmann, senior advisor at Pacific Economics Group, discussed findings of the Pew Charitable Trust, which showed that “Half of children born to parents with bottom-third income levels experience upward relative mobility when the parents remain continuously married; the figure falls to 26 percent when this is not the case,” he wrote.

The Pew study shows that the poverty rate among married couples is only 6 percent, and among married couples who both have full-time jobs the poverty rate is practically zero. The poverty rate among single dads and single moms, however, is much higher: 25 percent for single dads and 31 percent for single moms.

Investor’s Business Daily Senior Writer John Merline notes that income inequality has increased faster since Mr. Obama took office than under any of the three previous presidents, and that inequality is now greater than at any time since the Census Bureau started recording it back in 1947.

The message from this is that to assist folks in moving up the income ladder, Mr. Obama should replace his administration’s policies that impede economic recovery, and seriously encourage the restoration of family values among Americans. That would accomplish far more than making people think they are victims, and fomenting division among Americans.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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