Jim DeMint kicked off his first day as President of the Heritage Foundation with a letter celebrating the American spirit and lamenting the damage done to our national character by the Left’s limitless welfare state: “Liberal policies have destroyed families and communities and created dependence on government. Putting our society back together will require work.”
Not surprisingly, DeMint’s message failed to resonate with The Huffington Post. Author Ryan Grim published a short piece in which he criticizes DeMint and points out that “government assistance has led to a dramatic decline in poverty since the days when poor people were left to their own devices.”
Is the choice really only between government help or callous indifference to the plight of others? Or is there a difference between “government assistance” and “government dependency”?
Contrary to what Grim suggests, conservatives are not opposed to helping others and don’t want them to wallow in poverty. What we are concerned with is helping people in such a way that they no longer need help and become capable themselves of helping others.
All Americans—conservative and liberal alike—know that people sometimes fall on hard times and need help to get back on their feet. And all Americans—conservative and liberal alike—believe in a strong safety net.
Where conservatives part ways with the Left is in our concern for all those who become ensnared in a poorly-designed safety net. While we don’t deny that many bounce back on their feet or climb out of poverty once and for all, we know that many others get trapped in poverty because of programs that discourage work and marriage.
We see the devastating effects that the Left’s indiscriminate approach to poverty relief has on the people it is supposedly helping: the ruined lives, the decaying civic institutions and the erosion of the virtues that allow people to flourish. As Mark Steyn once remarked, “the greatest crime of welfare isn’t that it’s a waste of money, but that it’s a waste of people.”
This week on The Foundry, for example, we wrote about the swelling rolls of Americans collecting disability benefits and receiving food stamps and the devastating toll these programs take on many beneficiaries and communities. The budgetary costs pale in comparison to the human cost of trapping people into poverty and dependency.
Earlier this year, we warned policymakers at the state and federal level about the poverty traps created by high effective marginal tax rates for low-income workers. And in all our work, we are unabashed champions of opportunity and upward mobility for all Americans, including those who are most in need of a hand up and a way out.
To deplore the growth in dependency is not to abdicate our responsibility to help those in need. Rather it is to affirm that real help doesn’t just artificially inflate incomes—it sets the stage for self-reliance and the pursuit of happiness.