In 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton assured ordinary Americans that he understood the problems we face. His philosophy was summed up in the soundbite: “I feel your pain.” Or as The Onion joked, “New President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts.” During a campaign event in 2010, President Obama reprised the line, explaining that he understood the pain of standing in the hot sun.
All well and good. But if liberals really believe they understand our pain, why do so many of their policies actually inflict pain instead of easing it?
The cruel fact of big-government liberalism is that it fails to deliver on its own promises. “It is possible to conquer poverty,” President Lyndon Johnson announced as he sent Congress the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. “The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done. It charts a new course. It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” But it hasn’t worked.
In the last five decades, we’ve spent nearly $20 trillion on various welfare programs. But throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it. Far from eliminating poverty, we seem to have simply trapped people in it. As Ronald Reagan put it, “poverty won” the war we’d launched against it.
Perhaps that’s because, even as we’ve spent more, we’ve demanded less.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, patron saint of today’s liberals, famously said Americans should “ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.” But we’ve come a long way since those soaring words.
In 2011 The Wall Street Journal reported that a third of Americans received means tested welfare. That includes food stamps, housing subsidies or TANF. “Another 14.5 percent lived in homes where someone was on Medicare,” Sara Murray reported, and “nearly 16 percent lived in households receiving Social Security.”
And we’re moving in the wrong direction. On July 12, the Obama administration gutted rules that, since 1996, have generally required welfare recipients to work or at least look for work. This isn’t exactly the compassionate approach.
“Good intentions are not enough for a morally sound policy of assisting the poor; how we provide assistance is crucially important,” The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson writes. “Asking welfare recipients to work and engage in other productive behaviors respects their dignity, potential, and capabilities.”
Instead of encouraging independence, though, the federal government is actually seeking to enroll more people in its welfare programs. The Daily Caller recently reported that the Agriculture Department advertises in Spanish to encourage people to sign up for food stamps. “Congress allocates funds to USDA with the mandate to conduct public education about the benefits of SNAP and how to apply to help reduce hunger in America,” a spokesperson told the Caller.
And speaking of dependency, “more workers joined the federal government’s disability program in June than got new jobs,” John Merline reported at Investors Business Daily. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 80,000 new jobs were created in June, the Social Security Administration reports 85,000 enrolled in its disability program. There’s almost no chance those people will ever decide to return to the workforce. “Programs intended to steer people with more moderate disabilities back into jobs have managed to take only a small sliver of beneficiaries off the Social Security rolls,” The New York Times admitted last year.
There’s a better approach. “Since 1970, the percentage of the world’s population living on a dollar a day or less has decreased by 80 percent,” writes Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Is this because of the fabulous success of the United Nations or US foreign aid? Of course not. It is because of globalization, free trade, and entrepreneurship. In short, it is because of free enterprise, which is truly America’s gift to the world’s poor.” Brooks calls his approach “earned success,” based on the fact that people who succeed on their own are happier.
The United States has a long history of supporting free enterprise. But lately our government has been dragging the economy down with limits, rules and regulations. Good intentions aren’t enough; it’s time to shift back to good policy that really helps the poor. Then there’ll be less pain for all of us to feel.