Republicans may seem like Scrooges. Many want to slash food stamps, unemployment benefits and just about any program that helps the needy. So they know nothing about poverty, right?
Actually, conservatives have been proved right about three big ideas of social policy. Liberals may grimace, but hear me out on these points:
Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right. Children raised by single parents are three times as likely to live in poverty as kids in two-parent homes.
One historic mistake by liberals was the condemnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning in 1965 of the breakdown of the African-American family. He wasn’t racist; he was prescient, for the same breakdown has since occurred in white-working-class families as well.
Yet if Republicans were shown to be right in their diagnosis of family breakdown as a central problem, they have mostly been proved wrong in their prescriptions. Particularly under President George W. Bush, millions of dollars were spent on marriage promotion initiatives and studies show they overwhelmingly failed to have an effect. Abstinence-only sex education is another demonstrated failure.
What does work to strengthen families and reduce out-of-wedlock births?
There are no magic wands, but family-planning programs have reduced unplanned births — and 70 percent of pregnancies among unmarried women under 30 are unplanned. The Guttmacher Institute calculates that without family-planning services, the rate of unintended teen pregnancies would be 73 percent higher.
So it’s hard to think of a more anti-family policy than the closure of family-planning clinics in states like Texas, or the two-thirds cut (after inflation) in the main federal family-planning program since 1980. That’s a national shame.
One landmark initiative to help in this area is the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to offer free long-acting contraceptives to all women. Research suggests strongly that this will reduce abortions and out-of-wedlock births, while strengthening marriage, yet Republicans are fighting this mandate.
President Ronald Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families. Evidence has grown that jobs are important not only to our economic well-being but also to self-esteem. Indeed, long-term unemployment seems to lead to shortened life expectancy.
Two decades ago, President Bill Clinton pushed to “end welfare as we know it.” Liberals protested that the poor would be devastated, while conservatives hailed this as an avenue out of poverty. In retrospect, neither prediction was right. Welfare reform pushed the poor into jobs, but mostly marginal jobs that rarely offered an escalator to the middle class.
So how do we get good jobs? Expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Job training for people coming out of prison. Reduced incarceration, since a prison record makes people less employable. Subsidies to hire the long-term unemployed. Vocational programs like career academies.
Yet these are the kinds of social policies that Democrats tend to embrace and Republicans are leery of.
Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.
Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers (including, in New York City, one who passed out drunk in her classroom, with even the principal unable to rouse her). Likewise, some of the most successful schools in the inner cities have been charters in the Knowledge Is Power Program, showing what is possible even in troubled cities.
Yet Democrats, led by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are coming around, and teachers’ unions have moderated. Republicans sometimes suggest that our biggest educational problem is teachers’ unions themselves. That’s absurd. States with strong teachers’ unions in the North like Massachusetts have better schools than states in the South with weak unions.
Meanwhile, one of the most important evidence-backed school reforms is public preschool and home visitation for disadvantaged kids, yet Republicans are blocking any national move to universal prekindergarten (even though Republican-led states like Oklahoma are leaders in pre-K)
So, come on, Republicans! You’ve highlighted enduring truths about the importance of family, jobs and school reform. But, while your diagnoses deserve respectful consideration, your prescriptions have mostly been proved wrong.
One more thing: These aren’t just abstract policies. These are ethical issues, touching on our obligations to fellow humans.
If we offer the needy nothing but slogans and reprimands — “Strengthen your family! Get a job! Get an education!” — then our anti-poverty programs are a cruel joke, as bankrupt as Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.