The recent budget battle over Minnesota state government's $5 billion budget deficit brought to the fore deep disagreements over government funding and policy regarding helping the poor.
Signs calling on legislators not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and to "tax the rich" were plentiful at the State Capitol. But with state and federal government facing ongoing financial problems, the debate over welfare policy is just beginning.
I think there are a few things worthy of consideration in the debate.
First, as our state government shutdown was ending, an interesting report was issued by the Heritage Foundation analyzing Census Bureau data on how the average poor person, as defined by the federal government, actually lives. I think the results would surprise most people.
I suspect when many people think of the "poor" they think of homelessness, hunger and other significant hardships. The Heritage study found that the average "poor" person has air conditioning, cable TV and a family car. Poor people are likely to have two color televisions, a DVD player and video games like Xbox. They also have a microwave, refrigerator, an oven, a stove, clothes dryer and washer, ceiling fans and cordless phones.
This picture confirms the observation made several years ago by noted political scientist James Q. Wilson, who said, "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago."
Certainly, some people truly are homeless and hungry, and face severe hardships; they deserve our concern and support. Yet charges that any cuts or changes in welfare spending will devastate the poor are highly questionable when the very definition of "poor" is flawed.
Second, it's important to realize the best poverty program isn't a government program, but a marriage. A family with children headed by a married couple dramatically reduces the incidence of poverty. A study of Minnesota data by the Heritage Foundation found that 33.2 percent of single-parent, female-headed families with children were living in poverty, compared with only 3.8 percent of married-couple families with children.
Does this mean the government should now mandate marriage for welfare recipients? No, but recipients should be told the benefits of marriage and not be penalized for being married.
Currently, under many welfare programs, people are eligible for help when single, but once they are married their combined incomes make them ineligible. The consequence is couples living together, unmarried. This is demonstrably less stable and healthy than a marriage relationship, and it usually ends up with the children being raised by one parent.
And finally, we need to re-engage the private sector in addressing the problem of poverty, because the greatest poverty ultimately isn't material. As Mother Teresa once said, "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty."
Government needs to encourage more private initiatives, because as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said, "Government can write checks, but it can't love people." That's where private, faith-based initiatives can play an important role.
The time is ripe to take a new look at our social welfare system. We've spent $16 trillion on poverty-fighting programs over the past 45 years, with poverty rates basically unchanged. We can't afford to do the same thing over the next 50 years, nor should we.
Gaining a better understanding of who the poor really are and how we can strengthen the institution of marriage and private-sector involvement need to be key components of our future efforts to combat poverty.
Tom Prichard is president of the Minnesota Family Council, where he's worked since 1990. He has a law degree from the University of Iowa and a master's degree in public policy from the University of Michigan.