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Do Libertarians Hate the Poor?


The U.S. Census Bureau has released its annual poverty report based on the 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS).

The CPS ASEC is a sample survey of approximately 100,000 households nationwide conducted over a three-month period in February, March, and April. The data reflect conditions in calendar year 2011.

The press release accompanying the publication of Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011 reports that “in 2011, median household income declined, the poverty rate was not statistically different from the previous year and the percentage of people without health insurance coverage decreased.”

According to the Census Bureau’s press release, in 2011:

  • The official poverty rate was 15.0 percent.
  • There were 46.2 million people in poverty.
  • 13.7 percent of people 18 to 64 (26.5 million) were in poverty, compared with 8.7 percent of people 65 and older (3.6 million) and 21.9 percent of children under 18 (16.1 million).
  • After three consecutive years of increases, neither the official poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty was statistically different from the 2010 estimates.
  • Real median household income in the United States in 2011 was $50,054, a 1.5 percent decline from the 2010 median and the second consecutive annual drop.
  • Real median household income was 8.1 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession, and was 8.9 percent lower than the median household income peak that occurred in 1999.
  • Income inequality increased by 1.6 percent between 2010 and 2011.
  • 6.2 percent of married-couple families, 31.2 percent of families with a female householder and 16.1 percent of families with a male householder lived in poverty.

The press release also noted that in the spring of 2012, 9.7 million young adults age 25-34 (23.6 percent) were additional adults in someone else’s household.

It is not surprising that Democrats and Republicans both tried to spin the numbers to their own advantage.

Rebecca M. Blank, the acting U.S. Commerce secretary, issued a statement supporting the Obama administration,

It is clear that had President Obama not taken swift and aggressive action to grow our economy and create jobs, today’s report would have shown much higher poverty rates, lower incomes, and a greater share of the population without health insurance.The Obama administration has also proposed a host of remedies that would help spur additional economic growth and job creation, but which are still awaiting congressional approval.

Speaking for the Romney campaign, Andrea Saul commented about the poverty report:

Today’s report confirms that the American Dream remains out of reach for too many families. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans are living in poverty, including a record number of women, and the middle class is struggling amid falling incomes, rising prices, and persistently high unemployment. While this may be the best President Obama can do, it’s not the best America can do. Mitt Romney’s pro-growth agenda will revive our economy, spur job creation, lift families out of poverty, and create a better future for our country.

The Democratic and Republican positions on poverty and the poor can be seen in their recently adopted party platforms.

In the Democratic platform, poverty is mentioned 15 times and the poor are mentioned 3 times. The Democratic Party believes it is the job of the federal government to “make ending poverty a national priority” and “help lift people” out of poverty, and specifically “people with disabilities” and “communities of color.” To this end, it is committed to the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, the Sustainable Communities Initiative, Growth Zone Initiatives, green-jobs training programs, community development, public and affordable housing, homelessness prevention, raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, and refundable tax credits, the Child Tax credit, unemployment insurance benefits, and food stamps.

Democrats also think it is the business of the federal government to “reduce hunger and lift tens of millions of people from poverty across Africa.” They will also invoke the poor to justify anything: “We understand that global climate change may disproportionately affect the poor, and we are committed to environmental justice.”

In the Republican platform, poverty is mentioned six times and the poor are mentioned five times. The Republican Party likewise believes it is the job of the federal government to fight poverty. It is “committed to saving Medicare and Medicaid” because “absent reforms, these two programs are headed for bankruptcy that will endanger care for seniors and the poor.” Medicaid should be “block-granted” to the states “with the flexibility to design programs that meet the needs of their low income citizens.” The Republican platform suggests that “such reforms could be achieved through premium supports or a refundable tax credit, allowing non-disabled adults and children to be moved into private health insurance of their choice.” Public assistance “should be reformed to ensure that it promotes work.” Programs “like food stamps must ensure that those benefits are better targeted to those who need help the most.”

Republicans are as wedded to the welfare state as Democrats. Although they talk about limited government and fiscal conservatism in their platform and elsewhere, they are firmly committed to Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment, WIC, SCHIP, the Earned Income credit, housing assistance, and every other so-called anti-poverty measure. Welfare programs just need to be reformed, redesigned, or revamped.

But what is it with the Libertarian Party? The only mention of the poor or poverty in their new platform is in this sentence: “The proper and most effective source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”

Do libertarians hate the poor?

First of all, government anti-poverty programs are doing a terrible job at alleviating poverty. According to Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, “The federal government operates more than 80 means-tested welfare programs to provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income people.” Trillions of dollars have been spent on combating poverty since Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964. “Welfare spending amounts to $9,040 per year for each lower-income American,” remarks Rector, “If converted to cash and simply given to the recipients, this spending would be more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American household to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Second, there are a lot of misconceptions about poverty in the United States. According to a Heritage Foundation, analysis of the Census Bureau’s poverty report,

  • 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • 92 percent of poor households have a microwave.
  • Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR.
  • Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video-game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • 43 percent have Internet access.
  • One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • One-fourth have a digital video-recorder system, such as a TiVo.
  • 42 percent of poor households actually own their own homes.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the typical nonpoor person in Sweden, France, or the United Kingdom.
  • 40 percent have an automatic dishwasher.
  • More than half have a cell phone.

The scope and severity of poverty in the United States is certainly not what the raw numbers in the Census Bureau’s poverty report lead us to believe.

Third, the poverty level figures are deceiving. According to the Census Bureau: “Currently, anyone earning less than $11,484 per year is considered to be living in poverty. For a family of four, the earnings threshold is $23,021 per year.” However, that doesn’t mean that individuals and families counted as making less than those amounts actually do so. Government assistance is not included when determining one’s earnings. It is even stated by the Census Bureau: “The poverty estimates released today compare the official poverty thresholds to money income before taxes, not including the value of noncash benefits.” A family of four “officially” earning less than $23,021 might be receiving $400 in food stamps every month and a $5,000 refundable earned income credit at the end of each year. That is the equivalent of almost $10,000 in additional income.

Fourth, the poor don’t pay any federal income taxes. Although the Obama campaign and the Democrats in their platform talk about the “rich” paying their fair share, according to the IRS, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (in terms of adjusted gross income) paid 36.73 percent of all federal income taxes. The top 5 percent of taxpayers paid 58.66 percent. The top 10 percent of taxpayers paid 70.47. The top 25 percent of taxpayers paid 87.3 percent of the taxes, and the top 50 percent paid a whopping 97.75 percent. That doesn’t mean that the poor should be forced to pay more; it just means that they don’t have a federal income-tax bill to pay.

Fifth, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to fight poverty. The powers delegated to the federal government under Article I, Section 8, simply do not include the authority to set up anti-poverty programs or establish a safety net for Americans. But what about the “General Welfare” clause in the Preamble and in Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 1? The clause says “general welfare,” not “specific welfare” for certain individuals. It is neither the grant of a general legislative power to the federal government nor an additional grant of power beyond what is specifically enumerated in the Constitution. As the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, explained,

With respect to the two words “general welfare,” I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators. If the words obtained so readily a place in the “Articles of Confederation,” and received so little notice in their admission into the present Constitution, and retained for so long a time a silent place in both, the fairest explanation is, that the words, in the alternative of meaning nothing or meaning everything, had the former meaning taken for granted.

And although the census itself is constitutional, the Census Bureau’s poverty report is not.

Finally, and most important, fighting poverty is simply not a legitimate purpose of government. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens from the violence or fraud of others. No matter how noble the intentions, government goes astray when it attempts to “help” or “fix” or “remedy” the plight of some person. Government has no resources of its own. The only way it can spend money to help one person is by taking it by force from another.

The libertarian position on the poor and poverty is clear, consistent, and uncompromising: It is not a legitimate purpose of government to provide anti-poverty programs, safety nets, job training, welfare, income security, retirement security, medical care, premium supports, housing assistance, energy assistance, unemployment compensation, food stamps, or refundable tax credits.

That doesn’t mean that libertarians hate the poor, are not bothered by malnourished children, don’t care whether homeless people starve, or are not concerned about the plight of the poor.

It means that libertarians cherish the individual liberty, private property, personal responsibility, limited government, and free society that allow the actions of families, friends, philanthropists, humanitarian institutions, religious organizations, and charitable associations to flourish.

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