A Rule for Conservative Anti-Poverty Plans: Keep It Simple

Today's byzantine set of assistance programs is enough to baffle a policy specialist, much less the intended beneficiaries. Reformers need to streamline the system.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In an interview with Playboy in 1970, William F. Buckley proposed an antipoverty idea: free food for all Americans. The federal government would provide grocery stores with quantities of cheap dried foods. Anybody who wanted—“you, me, Nelson Rockefeller,” he quipped—could help themselves to as much as they cared to take. Buckley’s suggested list of free foods included powdered skim milk, soybeans, bulgur wheat, and lard.

Not all the kinks had been worked out of Buckley’s idea (bulgur wheat?). But the moral foundation of Buckley’s idea was simple and strong: No American should go hungry. In the 1960s, many conservatives grappled with the question of how to put a subsistence floor under poor Americans. Such an idea carried the endorsement of Friedrich Hayek himself, who endorsed a guaranteed minimum income in his last major work, Law, Legislation and Liberty, published in 1973:

There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organised community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law. 

Milton Friedman realized Hayek’s concept by devising an elegant “negative income tax.” The Nixon administration actually submitted to Congress a version of Friedman’s idea—renamed the “Family Assistance Plan”—around the time of Buckley’s interview. 

These kinds of ideas passed out of favor in the years after 1970. In the 1960s, male participation in the labor force had dropped steeply

Evidence accumulated that a guaranteed income severely undermined work incentives. Even the most forceful administration proponent of the Family Assistance Plan, future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, eventually abandoned the idea

Instead, federal and state governments enacted particular programs for particular subgroups among the poor and near poor: the disabled, low-wage workers, new mothers, rural renters, home-heating-fuel users, children whose families earned just slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid, and so on. The result as of 2014 is a welter of programs that would baffle a policy specialist, never mind the poor, the sick, and the ill-educated—culminating in the gnarled intricacies of Obamacare itself.

Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty concept recognizes the burden of complexity upon the poor. In his proposed pilot program, a caseworker could help poor people sort through all available benefits and choose a package that met their particular needs. 

Meanwhile, progressives are pushing for new programs that promise clarity and simplicity to hard pressed Americans: a higher minimum wage; universal pre-kindergarten education (and the hundreds of thousands of government jobs that would be created to staff all those pre-kindergartens), and—yes—a renewed attempt at a guaranteed minimum income. 

A few days ago, I suggested that mother’s allowances and acceptance of wider use of food stamps deserve consideration in a conservative antipoverty program. These are uncomfortable ideas for some. They imply an acceptance of some kind of social welfare as a "new normal.” But prolonged high unemployment is also the new normal. Stagnant wages are the new normal too. Without returning all to the way to the “old normal” of a guaranteed income, some mode of topping up wages seems needed. 

Among the great merits of food stamps and mother’s allowances is their simplicity from the user's point of view. Everyone knows whether or not she is a mother of a child under age 18. Food-stamp funds arrive seamlessly on an EBT card. Food-stamp fraud does occur, at an estimated rate of about 4 cents on the dollar, but because of the program’s simple design, it loses much less to improper payments than more complicated means-tested programs such as Medicaid (estimated by the General Accounting Office at 8 cents on the dollar) and the most vulnerable of them all, the Earned-Income Tax Credit (GAO estimate of overpayment: 28 cents on the dollar). 

As Paul Ryan has rightly said, we’re at the beginning, not the end, of the conservative anti-poverty debate. One of the most useful guidelines for that debate is the old Navy rule: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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