It’s hard not to feel the urge, or the NEED, to shout ‘We Told You So!’ at Seattle.
The city has led the movement to raise the minimum wage, passing wage laws that phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage over several years. But reports are coming in that some workers are now asking for their hours to be cut in order for them to remain eligible for public assistance with expenses like food, rent, and child care. It’s still very early in the process, but the higher wages don’t yet seem to be moving many people away from using that assistance, according to Dan Springer at Fox.
“Despite a booming economy throughout western Washington, the state’s welfare caseload has dropped very little since the higher wage phase began in Seattle in April. In March 130,851 people were enrolled in the Basic Food program. In April, the caseload dropped to 130,376.”
So let’s point and laugh at Seattle, right? Let’s make fun of the stupid liberals who thought they could reduce poverty by forcing businesses to pay lower-skilled employees more than they were making (and more than their productivity can justify). Let’s ridicule the fundamental lack of economic understanding that these elected officials possess and enjoy the Schadenfreude as they reap what they’ve sown.
And while we’re at it, let’s pummel the lazy sumbitches who are trying to get their hours reduced so they can continue to receive benefits, rather than use that bump in pay to get ahead, amirite?
Not so fast. I want you to think through some things first.
The welfare system is not designed to transition people out of poverty, but instead to perpetuate the bureaucracy that administers poverty programs. When the administration suspended the work requirements for programs like TANF, officials claimed this was made necessary by the slow recovery and thus the difficulty of people finding work after the financial crash. Remember, too, that the left has touted food stamps as an economic stimulus as well. Thus they can point to a lower labor participation rate, an extension of unemployment benefits, and the explosion of food stamp usage as evidence that we are not doing enough in the country to reduce poverty, and so more programs (and more federal employees to administer those programs) are desperately needed. If welfare creates jobs, you can find nearly all of those jobs behind desks in the administration of said welfare programs.
Government aid as currently structured punishes people for trying to get on the ladder of success, or for trying to climb higher. I speak from experience here. As a single mother working a just-over-minimum-wage retail job myself at twenty, I entered the welfare system for a short time. A one-time commission check of less than $300 automatically terminated ALL the assistance I was receiving, including the Medicaid I depended upon to have my newborn treated after she developed complications at birth. The system didn’t care nor account for the fact that I was not really earning a higher income. Even a temporary windfall (that I had worked very hard for, by the way) spat me out of the system without a thought for how I might manage without it. This is still the experience of many trying to work their way out of the poverty trap today. Even a small bump in pay can result in a worker losing ALL his benefits.
Poor people can, and do, make complex financial calculations and decisions that result in the best outcome for themselves in the short run. This isn’t hard to understand when you think about it. A person making $1,600 a month in a retail job at $10 an hour seems to be getting a windfall when the minimum wage jumps to $15 an hour ($2,400 a month). But if that person needs rent assistance and food stamps of $1000 to make ends meet, working a full load at the new wage won’t cover the difference. When he realizes he will lose all of those benefits if he’s working full time at the new wage, he’s going to work fewer hours. He HAS to in order to make it in the short run. The new wage doesn’t lift him out of poverty and dependence; it sinks him further in.
So what should conservatives do? If we really want to reduce poverty, how can we get ourselves in the driver’s seat in order to do that? How do we reach the middle, many of whom are being sold the lie that raising the minimum wage is ‘compassion’ instead of entrapment? How should we talk about the news out of Seattle that some people working minimum wage jobs are working fewer hours so they can continue to receive benefits?
Attack the system that entraps and enslaves the poor. Read up on poverty programs. Contrast efforts from the government with private programs, and learn about the different success rates. Memorize stories of real harm done to real people by the welfare bureaucracy and share those with people whenever poverty comes up. A good place to start is with articles from Andy at The Party of Choice and Ryan Bickmore and Stephen Glaug and me at Free Radical Network. Watching Arthur Brooks talk about real social justice and Meghan McArdle talk about social capital is also a must.
Express sympathy with poor people making hard choices. Remember, the real enemy is the system creating perverse incentives, not the people trapped within it. Ridiculing the poor may make conservatives feel superior, but it’s not as helpful in moving the vast middle of the country. If we want to acquire the power we need to solve these problems, we need to be convincing many more millions of people that we care about the people involved, not just the bottom line. It isn’t that we don’t care; it’s that our reputation has been so besmirched by the left (and some of those on the right who see no need to do more than ridicule) that the apolitical middle doesn’t think we care.
Propose solutions that actually transition people out of poverty. There are more conservative poverty program ideas out there than you could possibly track. Getting into the charts and graphs and statistics doesn’t help us move the ball as much as we’d like. We must talk about solutions. Simple reforms like stepping people down from assistance as they earn more, instead of cutting them off, are easy to articulate and grasp, and show a deeper understanding of the issue than your typical talking point from the left allows.
Lay the blame where it belongs. The system is broken. The system punishes people trying to get out of it. The system makes it harder for people to work towards success. Worst of all, the system pits people against each other, focusing on success and wealth as a zero-sum game. It pits taxpayers against the poor, each trying to hold on to what they have, instead of working to increase success and wealth for all. People who no longer need government assistance necessarily need their government less.
Conservatives and the poor have a common enemy in the system. It might be fun to blame and mock and ridicule the poor, and it might make one feel good for a little while. But I can guarantee you it does next to nothing to stop the government from growing the system and continuing to entrap the poor. In the end, it’s a question we must answer. Are we satisfied with merely feeling superior to the poor in our country, or are we going to do whatever it takes to tackle poverty and destroy the system that perpetuates it?