Let's have some new thinking on fighting poverty

Posted: Sep 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

More than $7 trillion has been spent on poverty programs since Lyndon Johnson declared his "war on poverty" 40 years ago, with effectively zero impact on overall black poverty. Yet 40 years of failure doesn't seem to be enough to suggest to liberals, black and white, that their approach to poverty might be wrong.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Democratic Sen. John Edwards, among others, riding the post-Katrina poverty-in-America theme, are making predictable speeches calling for yet more government poverty programs. I'm not sure I want to let these folks off with an insanity plea, but you really have to wonder what it takes for liberals to add one and one and get two.

It's a bit hard to buy the claim that Katrina suddenly made Americans aware of poverty.

The Washington Post reported this week that the federal government has in place over 80 poverty-related programs on which we spend in the neighborhood of $500 billion annually. Given the 37 million Americans that the Census Bureau tells us live in poverty, my calculator tells me this comes out to $13,500 spent per poverty-stricken person. Hardly indifference.

Yet, says the Post, "despite" all this spending, tens of millions of Americans remain poor. And despite 40 years of bloated government and massive spending, with no impact on structural black poverty, Obama concludes we need even more of the same.

At least as incredible as the insistence of liberals on perpetuating failure is their absolute refusal to consider a single new idea.

Black politicians and black entertainers are jumping on President Bush for allegedly being "indifferent" and not caring about blacks. But they have fought proposals that the president brought to Washington that would tangibly improve the condition of black America.

One of the single biggest issues for blacks today is education. Few would argue that education is the key to every kid's future.

Black kids are trapped in hopeless, failing inner-city public schools. There is only one answer here, and that is school choice. We need voucher programs that would let black parents send their kids to school wherever they choose. The marketplace delivers the best products in the world to American consumers. We need to let that same marketplace deliver education.

The No Child Left Behind law was enacted with limited choice provisions. When a school loses accreditation, parents can choose another public school in the district. The challenge, under these constrained circumstances, is to find one. My assistant, with great difficulty, just moved her son to a new school after his school failed. She tells me about the change in this child as a result of showing up in a positive school environment every day.

No Child Left Behind had broad choice provisions as initially proposed by Bush. However, these provisions were gutted as a result of Democratic opposition.

Blacks themselves understand the importance of vouchers and choice, and regularly poll over 50 percent in favor of them. Yet the Congressional Black Caucus remains opposed to any plan that would give black parents choice and black kids an open field of alternatives for school.

Social Security private accounts is another issue, proposed by Bush, that the Black Caucus has fought to the detriment of its own community.

Black politicians, if they really wanted to lift the economic shackles off their own constituents, would be fighting to free them from the regressive payroll tax that deprives them of ownership and wealth creation. Despite the political smoke, this reform is for poor people, not rich people. The wealthy can pay the tax and have plenty spare cash left over to save in 401(k)s and IRAs. But for someone making $25,000 a year, that's not the case. The only cash that could be available for saving is taxed into Social Security.

But, here again, the Black Caucus tells blacks that it is too risky to get off the government plantation.

Any finance professor will make clear that over 40 years the risk of a savings account that is half bonds and half stock index fund is minimal and is virtually certain to produce retirement income many times greater than what Social Security promises (and does not have to give). So why do black political leaders, who supposedly care about black economic well-being, uniformly fight this?

Black liberals should give Einstein a little credit, even if he was white. It is indeed insane to repeat past failures and expect different results. It's time for black leaders to start believing in their own people.