I was speaking with my sister this morning and wondered if I was correct that there is something unique about poverty in America. It started with my stating, apropos I don’t remember what, that smaller government is safer government — the mere fact that it is small limits the amount of mischief it can do to individual citizens. My sister agreed, but added “if government is small, it also limits the amount of benefits it can confer.”
What my sister was speaking about, of course, are social services. Some see them as a necessary safety net, some see them as a perpetual welfare program, and some see them as a beneficial way to redistribute wealth. I’m actually not here to argue about the merits or demerits of America’s social services. I want to head in another direction entirely.
My response to my sister was that, yes, government can confer benefits, but those benefits invariably come with strings attached: Increased government control over people’s lives (“He who pays the piper calls the tune”), increasingly intrusive government, corrupt government, power-hungry government, etc. In any event, I argued, government benefits never raise people above a bare minimum.
If you want to find the best way to raise people out of poverty, I said, look to the free market. At no other time in history, and in no other place, either in the past or the present, have more people been raised up than those people who have benefited from the last 150 years free market enterprise in the Western World.
In America, especially, poverty — real poverty of the type that people experienced historically or that people still experience in the Third World — no longer exists. To the extent that there are people who live in the streets, who go hungry, and who lack clothing or other care, you’ll invariably find mental illness or substance abuse attached.